Monday, January 25, 2010

Pushing Jesus Over a Cliff?

If someone in your family suddenly made it big, maybe they signed an NFL contract or landed a record deal or just won the lottery, you'd expect at least a small portion of their good fortune to overflow to you, wouldn't you? I'm not talking about a distant cousin here. If a sibling or parent or that favorite aunt was suddenly rolling in millions while you continued to toil in your less than lucrative job trying to pay off the mortgage and the car payments and the college loans, you might expect that your suddenly fortunate family member might make at least a little of that debt disappear for you, right?

In Luke 4:21-30, the people of Nazareth are like family members who have just watched one of their kin make it big. This passage is a continuation of the story I preached from two weeks ago. In that passage, Jesus stands up to read from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, the town where he grew up. These words are about the God-sent, Spirit-anointed, messiah who will proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed and Jesus says that these words have been fulfilled in their hearing. In other words, Jesus is that deliverer that Isaiah was talking about.

We might expect that this is the reason that the people want to push him off a cliff by the end of this story. After all, the Pharisees are constantly questioning Jesus' authority and claims about himself and by the end of the gospel Jesus is put on trial for blasphemy. However, that is not what is going on here at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry. No, at first, the people are thrilled that Jesus has made this claim about himself. That is because Jesus' Jewish audience would have seen themselves as the poor, captive, and oppressed that he was talking about. Every first century Jew knew that those words from the prophet Isaiah were about poor, afflicted Israel that had been enslaved in Egpyt, exiled in Babylon, and was now being oppressed by Rome. Those present in the synagogue would have heard Jesus saying that he had been sent to deliver them. That is why Luke says that "they were amazed at the gracious words that were falling from his lips; and they were saying, 'Is this not Joseph's son?" Translation: "Israel's deliverer is from our own town and from a family we all know? That is good news for Israel but especially good news for us!" Those at the synagogue figured if Jesus was going to be a big time king someday soon then they all stood to benefit from their close connection to him. You can almost hear them saying "We believe in you Jesus! Just remember us when you're a big star!"

Of course, none of this is lost on Jesus. He knows what kind of expectations he has stirred up with these words from Isaiah. He knows that the people of Nazareth will expect favors and kickbacks from him. And, as usual, Jesus refuses to conform to expectations. Instead, Jesus tells two short stories:
I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian."
In both of these stories, God's prophetic messengers go to Gentiles instead of God's people Israel. Jesus' message is clear. Like Elijah and Elisha before, Jesus' prophetic ministry is not only to Israel but also to the Gentiles. The promise of good news, deliverance, liberation, and freedom is not only for Israel but for all who will respond to Jesus. It is this message, that Jesus is the messiah and deliverer for all people and not just Israel, that so enrages Jesus' audience that they seek to kill him by pushing him over a cliff.

Maybe none of us has tried to shove Jesus off a cliff lately but isn't it easy to make the same mistake that crowd in Nazareth made; to see in Jesus only what he can do for us and to discard him when we see that he will no longer be a benefit to us? In this passage, the Spirit of Jesus is speaking to his Church, saying "I didn't come just for you. I came so that you might learn to live for others."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Our Part for Haiti

We have to do something.

This seemed to be the one thought that ran through my head as the images of Port-au-Prince ran across my TV screen. It's not that I'm an unusually compassionate person. Like anyone who follows the news, my mind and heart are too often numbed to the images and reports of pain and suffering that make their way from around the world into my living room on a daily basis. In fact, it was one such report that came flooding back to my memory as I watched these new images of devastation and death. It had told how people in Haiti were so poor that they were resorting to making cookies from mud just so they would have something to quell the sharp pains of a woefully empty stomach. Now they had to deal with a massive earthquake too? We had to do something.

At first, the "we" I had in mind was only my wife and I. I wondered what we could do, how much we could give in order to lessen the suffering of our Haitian brothers and sisters. However, as the magnitude of this tragedy became more apparent it wasn't long before I began to realize that my role as a minister necessitated that I call upon my congregation to respond. We dedicated our entire worship service last Sunday to those who are suffering in Haiti. Our church board also made personal pledges that added up to over $2500 for Haiti relief through Nazarene Compassionate Ministries and we are expecting much more to be given by the rest of our congregation in the weeks ahead. Some in our church are working with others in our town to collect items for orphanages in Haiti. Still others are considering how we can continue to help Haiti recover in the months and years ahead.

We know that whatever our church contributes will be an immeasurably small portion of what is needed in Haiti. We are grateful that it is not our task alone and that so many countless others are responding with such generosity and compassion. On the other hand, we also know that however small our part might be, it is still our part and it is not to be left to someone else. As much as our actions are meant to help those in Haiti, those same actions are also exercises in breaking through the numbness of our own hearts and minds to the suffering of those around us and around our world. I once heard a preacher say that compassion is when you see someone else hurting and you hurt with them so badly that you have to do something. It is our hope that our acts of solidarity with those who are hurting in Haiti, however small those acts might be, will be a step toward shaping us to be the kind of people who see the suffering of others and know that we have to do something.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Jesus' Mother and Jars of Water

The Gospel of John is an endlessly symbolic book. Rarely, it seems, does anything in this book have only a plain, literal meaning. Often the stories in John's Gospel have layers of meaning that mesh a simpler truth with a deeper and richer symbolic truth. In my experience, if there is something that seems odd in John's Gospel or seemingly insignificant details receive inordinate attention, it is because John wishes to draw our attention to something we might otherwise miss. In my opinion, there are two such oddities in John 2:1-11; one is the conversation between Jesus and his mother, the second is the attention given to some stone water jars.

Jesus, his family, and his disciples are guests at a wedding in Cana. Somehow Mary, Jesus' mother, becomes aware of a shortage of wine and feels that she needs to make Jesus aware of the matter. This in itself is interesting because it suggests that Mary believes Jesus can do something about it. John tells us that this is Jesus' first public miracle but it seems that Mary is already privately aware of what Jesus can do. However, Jesus seems put off by his own mother's faith in him. He responds as if the shortage is wine is not his concern. Nevertheless, Mary persists in her faith telling the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. In this exchange, Mary and Jesus seem to relate to each other as any thing but mother and son. Instead, Mary's interaction with Jesus sounds more like that of a disciple.

The other oddity of this story is the amount of space John uses to describe the jars which will contain the water which Jesus turns into wine. John gives us all kinds of descriptive details concerning these jars that might otherwise seem completely irrelevant to the rest of the story; they are stone, there are six of them, they are used for Jewish purification rituals, and they each contain twenty or thirty gallons. However, these details cause our minds to linger on these jars as we hear the story John tells. It is not only significant that Jesus turns water into wine. It is significant that Jesus uses these jars to do so.

I think John is using both of these oddities to point us toward the same truth; that our relationship to Jesus as Lord takes precedence over our usual relationships and rituals. Mary seems to know, even at this early stage in John's Gospel, that she can not relate to her son as any other mother would. She comes to him less with a mother's request and more with a disciple's faith. Even the incredibly important mother-son relationship must submit to the Lordship of Christ. Similarly, John also subordinates concerns of ritual purity to Christ. The water jars that John mentions were used for an important cleansing ritual; to use them for anything else would have likely been an offense to Torah observant Jews. However, it is these jars that Jesus has filled with water that he will turn to wine. Jesus' first miracle sets aside important Jewish laws of ritual purity so that he can provide more wine to keep the party going.

Jesus overturns our typical way of doing things, our normal way of relating to each other and to God. But in doing so, he is making possible the great wedding feast to which we have all been invited.

Malachi's Baptism

Yesterday, we had the joy presenting our son to God through the sacrament of baptism. Of course, Malachi will have no memory of this day. He did not choose to be baptized and he will only know of it by watching this video and listening to our words of explanation about its significance when he is older. But we do not believe that lessens the significance of this day.

In fact, we believe that baptizing our son at this very young age is a testament to the extraordinary grace of God. It is a reminder that God's grace is not dependent upon us. Yes, we have to accept it and we will rejoice as Malachi comes to know and accept God's grace throughout the rest of his life. However, it is a basic tenet of the Christian faith that God is always reaching out to us before we even know that we should be searching for him. Indeed, we could not even have the freedom to choose God were it not for his grace first breaking the chains that hold captive our will. Malachi's baptism as an infant is a symbol of God's love and acceptance of him even before Malachi can return that love and acceptance.

Malachi's baptism is also a promise on our part, both Jess and I and our church family, to raise Malachi to understand the significance of this day. We know that God's grace and love has come to us through the discipling we received from our families and church families. We now commit to doing the same for Malachi so that he too can know the joy of serving Christ as Lord and Savior.

Monday, January 4, 2010

King of Outcasts

As Christians, we expect the sinless, Son of God, perfect, king of all creation kind of Jesus. He's the one we are accustomed to hearing about. That's what we look for when we read the gospels. So at Jesus' baptism, when we read that there is a voice from heaven that says to Jesus "You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased" we are not surprised. What could be more fitting to describe Jesus than the combination of a quote from Psalm 2, which describes the coronation of the king of Israel, and Isaiah 42, which describes the king who will enact God's justice?

But often etched between the kingly connotations of Jesus' ministry are hints of scandal. His baptism is no exception. He is baptized by his oddball cousin. Luke doesn't tell us as much about John the baptist's strange appearance (camels hair for clothing and a diet of locusts and honey) as Matthew does but he does tell us that John does his preaching and baptizing in the wilderness which seems like kind of an odd place to try to draw a crowd. If John wanted to draw a crowd concerned about religion, he would have done much better preaching in Jerusalem near the Temple where religion was the hot topic. Its no surprise then that the crowds John does draw to hear his message consist of tax collectors and soldiers, folks who aren't exactly held up as examples of religious faithfulness in 1st century Jewish culture. And just in case we missed all this, Luke drives the point home by reminding us in the verse immediately preceding Jesus' baptism that John himself ends up imprisoned by Herod, the current king of the Jews.

It is with this crowd of miscreants and reprobates that Jesus lines up in the desert to be baptized by a man who will soon be considered an outlaw. In doing so, Jesus publicly demonstrates that he wishes to be identified with John and those he baptizes. It is John's ministry; one of repentance and real love for others, and not the ministry of the Temple, which will be the forerunner of Jesus's own ministry. It is with this crowd, a people tired of corrupt religion but so hungry for a real transformation in their lives that they will travel out into the wilderness and be dunked in a dirty river to find it, that Jesus wishes to be associated. In being baptized by John, the beloved Son who pleases the Father has cast his lot with those who have been left out by the established religion of their day.