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Sunday Prep

you’re number one

“This is my son, my chosen, listen to him.”

These words boomed from the clouds as Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop. They show God beaming with pride at His boy, His child—Jesus. It’s the very embodiment of what a proud father sounds like.

Here’s the thing though: while these words are spoken OF JESUS and they tell us a little bit who JESUS is… these words ALSO give us an insight into the heart of God the Father.

God, Our Father, is sometimes found to be like the proud parent shouting at the top of their lungs while watching their child play soccer, play the violin, or compete in the spelling bee. It’s that almost embarrassing over-the-top glee that gets some parents in trouble with their progeny, but which only makes the parent be all the more embarrassing.

You know what I’m talking about?

And, because of this little insight into the heart and soul of God, we get a glimpse into how God feels not only about His-son-Jesus, but also… us. For we too are God’s sons and daughters.

And, if God is willing to be that-embarrassing-parent for Jesus, God is just as willing and able to be that-embarrassing-parent for us too.

God loves us. Hopefully we know that. Hopefully we feel that. But, God doesn’t just stop at loving us—God is the parent in the stands with the hoarse throat and the foam #1 finger shouting at the top of his lungs for us.

For you. Yes, you. Yes, even when you feel like a failure. Yes, even when you feel like you don’t deserve it. Yes, even when you don’t want it.

God is proud of you. To God, you are #1. Because that is just who our God is. And that is who you are to God.

love your enemy

Of all the teachings of Jesus, this is his one unique contribution to human religious thought. There were other ancient religious teachers who told their adherents to serve the poor, to love their neighbors, and to live virtuous lives.

But, no other ancient religious or philosophical teachers ever told people to love their enemies.

This is peak Jesus. And, it’s crazy.

It’s insane.

And, Jesus’ original followers would have thought it was insane too. I mean they had serious enemies. Enemies that were occupying their country at the time. When Jesus tells them to “love your enemies,” he was really telling them to “love the tax collector who is fleecing you,” “love the Roman soldiers who are beating you in the streets,” “love the religious leaders who are colluding with the Romans to keep you subjugated.”

This would not have gone over well.

It doesn’t even go over all that well today.

Now, what Jesus is saying here could be just simple appeasement. It could have been about going along to get along. It could be responding to your whipping with “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

But, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is actually saying. He’s NOT telling us to love what our enemy is DOING. He’s telling us to love them as people, as children of God, as brothers and sisters in God’s great family. Hating them doesn’t do anyone any good. But loving them might just change the entire equation. It might make them think about what they are doing. It will definitely preserve your own humanity.

And, it might just change the world.

Because if people actually took Jesus seriously here, that’s exactly what it would do.

I know, right?

Luke’s version of the beatitudes is strange. I mean who feels blessed when they are poor, when they are hungry, or when they are weeping? Who feels blessed when we are hated, reviled, and excluded?

It’s in those painful, wretched moments of our life that we usually feel about as far away from God as we could possibly be. When we are at our lowest is when we tend to entertain the thought that God has abandoned us – that we are alone in the universe – that God doesn’t really care about us.

But, Jesus says that that’s exactly when we are blessed.

Either Jesus doesn’t know what blessing is… or we don’t.

I’m betting it’s the later.

These proclamations of blessing are here to remind us that our darkest days are not the days when we are alone and forsaken. In fact, in some strange way, it may just be when we are in the most need may just be when we are nearest to the Presence of God.

Remember that Jesus himself was betrayed, arrested, beaten, ridiculed, and executed. Remember it was Jesus himself who cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus experienced horrific pain, AND he experienced the feeling of the abandonment of God.

Amazingly, he not only shared in our human pain and death, but he also shared in our experience of being alone and forsaken by God. Our experience now joins Jesus’ experience. When we suffer, Jesus is right there with us saying, “I know, right?” And when we say how alone we feel, Jesus says “I know, right?”

It’s in our very experience of abandonment that we find ourselves in Jesus’ company.

go fishing

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be fishing for people.”

My dad loved to take me fishing. To be honest, I didn’t always love to go fishing with my dad—but he looked forward to getting the tackle box and rods together, getting some frozen squid for the bait, and heading out on the boat into the bay to do some fishing.

We weren’t particularly good fishermen. We didn’t catch a lot. We didn’t even eat much seafood in our house growing up. But, I can still remember the salt air on my skin, the sun on my neck, and my hands sticky with the stench of squid.

I don’t know exactly what it would have been like for Simon Peter and his buddies having fished all night and having caught nothing—but I have a little idea. They would have been wet, cold, tired, with prabably the aroma of bait and dead fish swirling about them. They would have been hungry and grumpy.

And, here comes Jesus.

They can’t just finish up cleaning the nets and boats because Jesus commandeers them for teaching. That had to annoy the fishermen a little bit.

But, even more annoying, this land-lover Jesus starts giving them fishing tips. “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Imagine the eye rolls from the experienced fishermen. What does this guy know? His father was a carpenter, not a fisherman.

But, then after they humor him, they haul in a catch so large that they need help getting it into the boat.

Of course, this story isn’t about fish. It’s about people. It’s about people hearing the Good News of Jesus. It’s about people coming to know God’s love for them.

Jesus tells Peter that he will be a “fisher of men.” Which will eventually become Peter’s job, but it’s also not just his—it’s ours too.

Our world is full of people who are hurting, who are sick, who are lonely and depressed, who are addicted, who are despondent—people who need to know that they are loved, that there is hope beyond their wildest imaginations.

off a cliff

Well, it was nice while it lasted.

Jesus went to his hometown, he attended his childhood synagogue, he gave his first sermon, and everyone was very polite and nice about the whole thing.

Then, a few moments later we read:

All in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

They went from complimentary to murderous in a matter of minutes.

What happened?

He reminds his hometown crew that about 800 years prior there was a great famine in Israel, and there was a wonder-working prophet at the time named Elijah—but God didn’t have him bring anyone in Israel food, rather he sent him to a foreign widow in Sidon. He also reminded him that about 750 years prior there were a lot of lepers in Israel, and there was another wonder-working prophet at the time named Elisha—but he wasn’t sent by God to tend to any of the Israelite lepers, but rather God sent him to heal a Syrian who was suffering from leprosy.

Basically, Jesus’ hometown was proud of their small-town-boy-made-good, and were probably thinking that he would do lots of wonders and miracles for us. But, rather than indulge his old friends and relations, he reminds them that God doesn’t always heal US, sometimes he heals THEM—“other people.”

Doesn’t that just make you want to hurl someone off a cliff?

Maybe not, but Jesus’ point here is a bitter one. For those of us who have devoted our lives to God, we often think that God will look after us first. But, God’s view of the world is broader than ours. His way of searching out need in the world is different than ours. We will never be forgotten, but God is like the shepherd who leaves the 99 good sheep to go off and find the one stray sheep.

If you’re one of the 99, you might be annoyed that God goes off to find that miserable, obstreperous sheep. But, if you’re that one… aren’t you filled with joy and relief when God comes bounding around the corner?

This little story is one more reminder that Jesus is for everyone. E-v-e-r-y-o-n-e.

Everyone.

Even if it makes you mad.

the story has not ended

About 600 years before Jesus, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. (The king of Babylon was Nebuchadnezzar, for those of you who had perfect attendance in Sunday School as a child.) The Babylonians destroyed the Temple, the palace, and the city walls. They killed countless inhabitants of the city, and they took the survivors back to Babylon to be their slaves.

The Israelites languished in Babylon as captives for 70 years. And then Babylon was defeated by the Persians, and the Persian King (Cyrus) looked at the Israelites and said something to the effect of “Why don’t y’all go home?”

So, they did.

They left Babylon and made the long journey back to Jerusalem. King Cyrus gave them enough money to rebuild their homeland, and so once they got there, they got to the hard work of taking what had been thrown down and making it new again.

70 years is a long time to be away from home. It’s also a long time to be without their religion. All of the things that they had been used to in the old days like the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, the festivals—all of it was gone for those 70 years.

When they got home again, they didn’t just have to rebuild their city, they had to rebuild their faith. They had to remember that they were God’s People, and they had to figure out how to be God’s People once more.

Ezra and Nehemiah were the two leaders who helped make that happen. In this weekend’s Hebrew Bible lesson they call the people together to rededicate them to God, and to the ways of God. They literally came together for Ezra to read the Bible to them.

This people—who had been so beaten down over the years—were reminded through this reading that they had been created in the Image of God, that they had been saved from slavery in Egypt and given a new home, that they were God’s Chosen People. And now they would have realized that they had been saved once again, and their homeland had been restored.

For them standing in the ruins of their homeland, the Bible wasn’t just a collection of old stories that had happened a long time ago—rather it was this grand story of God saving his people over and over again, and they were a part of this story. The story hadn’t ended. Their religion wasn’t an exercise in ancient history—it was still happening right before their eyes.

blessing – rich and abundant

They ran out of wine at the wedding. Now, to that couple—and their family—it would have been a major bummer. They would have felt like they had let their guests down. Someone would have gotten yelled at for falling asleep on the job. Some guests would have complained, or started snickering behind the bride’s back.

But, you know… in the grand scheme of things… not a big deal. The sun would rise the next day. By the next month, and maybe even the next week, everyone would have forgotten about it. Eventually they’d be able to laugh at it.

Of all the serious issues that Jesus had to deal with in the course of his ministry though… this was kind of an easy one. No one had died, no one was tragically sick, no one was destitute.

The party had just run out of wine.

But, maybe there’s more going on here than just a simple wedding mishap… 

You see, weddings are about more than just weddings, especially in the Bible. Weddings are always reminders of the relationship between God and humanity. We see that in the Book of the Prophet Hosea, where God’s People are charged with adultery, for worshipping other gods. We see it in the New Testament where the Church is called the “bride of Christ.”

Weddings point us to the union of God and humanity.

And, you see, wine is about more than just wine. Especially in the Hebrew Bible, wine represented the blessing of God. We see it especially in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Wine is what is to be served at the heavenly banquet table, when God’s Kingdom finally came in its fullness.

So, here we have a story that’s a reminder of our relationship with God, and where the thing that represents God’s blessing had run out. What’s the story really about?

It’s about the drying up of our relationship with God. The bloom was off the rose. The tank was empty. All the good stuff had gone up in smoke.

And what does Jesus do in this story? He makes a WHOLE BUNCH of more wine. And it is the finest of fine wines.

See what’s happening here? This story isn’t just about a wedding mishap that Jesus fixes in a snap. It’s about Jesus rejuvenating the relationship between humanity and God—reinventing it with abundant and rich blessings beyond number.

This isn’t about an ancient party after all. It’s about the party we’re all invited to.

beloved

‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

These incredible words boom from heaven while Jesus is being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. But, they make more sense if you keep reading on in the Gospel of Luke.

For no sooner is Jesus proclaimed to be God’s Son than Luke launches into his genealogy of Jesus. Unlike Matthew’s genealogy which is a list of “begats,” Luke’s is a telling of who is who’s “son,” who is whose “child.” Luke begins with “Jesus, the son of Joseph” and then he just keeps going back further and further into history until he gets to “Adam.” The whole Lukan genealogy begins with Jesus and ends with Adam.

Luke’s genealogy grounds the story of Jesus into the ancient story of God’s people—the saints and the sinners of Israel all the way back to the very beginning. Luke’s genealogy is a microcosm of ALL of human history—at least up until Jesus.

It’s important to remember that the story of God’s love for us—the story of God’s intimate involvement with His Children—goes back deep, so deep, into the molten center of cosmic history. From that moment God spoke “light” and it was so. From that moment when we were drawn out of the primordial mud and formed into the Divine Image. From the moment when we were freed from Pharaoh’s grip. From the moments when patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets were called forth to do God’s work.

Right up to the moment when God became flesh, and dwelt among us. Living as one of us. Living for us. And dying for us.

And right up to this moment. Now.

In Baptism we are counted as God’s sons and daughters too. That long list of fathers and children in Luke’s Gospel is not just a dead family tree, but a living one, that stretches not only backward but forward. To us.

We are part of the story of Redemption, and we are recipients of it.

As they were Beloved of God, so are we.

go anyway

Karen and I love James Bond movies—in fact one of our first “dates” was watching a Bond marathon.

The villain in the Bond movie, Skyfall, is quite a man to behold. He’s not after world domination or riches. One might say that he’s after revenge. But, really it’s not that. He just wants to exert his dominance over someone from his past, and hurt that person very much. He doesn’t even care if he goes down in the pursuit of this goal.

He’s mad, in the “insane” sense of the word.

And, it’s clear that underneath his facade of rage and thirst to inflict pain is really just fear. Fear gone wrong.

With that in the background, it’s hard not to see Herod in that same light. And, it’s quite amazing that with all the merry-making, rosy-cheeked Santas, and whimsical snowflakes hanging from every department store and mall food court—that the first Christmas was lived out on the backdrop of such fear and the plotting of such evil.

Herod so desperately feared losing his power that he sought to hunt down the infant Christ. And, when he couldn’t find him he killed male children indiscriminately in the hopes that Jesus would end up being one of that number.

Ah, we are so quick to forget that, aren’t we?—and that link to the story of Moses that Matthew wants us all to see so clearly.

Fear and the thirst for power is a mix that is volatile. How many innocent lives and beautiful dreams have been lost in that concoction?

And there it is, right there, while Jesus is still in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. No crying he makes, and yet a bounty is on his head. Holy infant, tender and mild, and yet he is a threat to the great Herod.

And, with all of that in the background…people don’t stay away. They come.

They come from great distances. From the east.

And they don’t come because the great learned scholars and holy folk of the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew of his coming. On no. They knew nothing of it until it had been told to them.

No, the professionally religious in and around Jerusalem were a bunch of no-nothings when it came to the Word becoming flesh.

But, no matter, for the cosmos cried out in exultation. A star shone, and it moved till it was over the spot where the Prince of Peace lie.

And those wise men—how many? Who knows. Matthew doesn’t tell us. For all we know it was the grandest parade the world had ever seen.

They knew that Herod was evil. They had been to his lair. They had looked into his power-hungry eyes and fear-laden glare.

They knew.

But, they came anyway. The parade went on, with the star in the front and the camels in the rear.

Nothing would stop them. Nothing could.

And they must be the icon of the Church today, mustn’t they? Isn’t our world soaked in fear? Isn’t our world overwhelmed with those who seek to hoard power? Isn’t our world crying out with the blood of the innocent, caught in the crossfire?

We know. But, we’re to make our way there despite it all. We’re to make our pilgrimage to the Christ. And we’re to give him our gifts.

And our lives.

aha moment

I have been so influenced on Elaine Pagels’ work on the prologue to John, that it’s hard for me to look at John without seeing it through that lens. Dr. Pagels identifies a feature she calls “the three negations” deeply embedded in the fabric of the Prologue. And it’s these negations which set up who Jesus is, and what his Incarnation means for John, and perhaps for us.

In John 1:5 the “Light shines in the darkness” but the darkness did not “understand” it. This is sometimes translated as “overcome,” but while lovely, it’s not as good a translation as “understand.”

The darkness did not understand Jesus.

In 1:10, when the Light comes into the world (cosmos) the people of the world failed to “know” or “recognize” it.

The nations did not recognize Jesus.

And, in 1:11, the Light came to his “own,” and his own people failed to receive it. God’s People.

God’s own People did not receive Jesus.

Thus, the three negations. The Light came but was subsequently neither “understood,” “recognized,” nor “received.”

But, when the “Word became flesh” everything changes. It’s in the Incarnation that “we have seen his glory.”

For John the Incarnation is the “aha” moment for the whole creation, and for God’s “own.”

Us.

It’s the time when God is finally understood, recognized, received, and given glory.

Jesus becoming flesh is the turning point upon which all of history pivots. And, it’s when our relationship with God fundamentally shifts.

I think that will all the busy-ness of the season, and the subsequent exhaustion which comes from midnight services and Sunday School pageants… that preaches.

Christmas – The Incarnation changes everything.

The key article from which I’ve based this short entry on is here (the three negations is on the 5th page of the article): Pagels, Elaine H. Journal of Biblical Literature, 118 no 3 Fall 1999, p 477-496.