Monday, November 29, 2010

What Won't Save Us

As I was eating lunch today, I was browsing the most recent TIME magazine.  It's one of those typical end-of-the-year issues.  It contained several articles that looked over significant events of the last several years and tried to assign some significance to them.  The one article I had the time to read was about the election of President Bush in 2000.  It recounted the details of just how close that election was; so close that it seemed the margin of error in counting the votes would always exceed the margin of victory by either candidate.  How the votes were counted depended on who counted them and their interpretation of what constituted a legal ballot cast.

Of course, the articles go on to discuss other important events of the last several years: 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent economic meltdown.  As I read this article and pondered these events, one question kept resounding in my mind:

How much more evidence do we need that democracy and capitalism, politics and economics are not our savior?  

Don't get me wrong.  Really, please don't assume I'm saying something that I'm not as so often happen with these topics.  I think government and economic policy are important; very important.  They have their place in our world and we should continue to work to improve our policies and laws as a nation.  I'm even mostly convinced that democracy and capitalism are the best forms of government and economics that we've come up with so far as a human race.

Hear what I am saying: as Christians we are called to work to improve the laws and policies that govern our world while also constantly reminding ourselves that they are not the ultimate answer.   So often we become so impassioned about these things that you'd think all of our hope rested in them.  But shouldn't the events of just the last decade be enough to convince us that these things will ultimately always fail us?  However great democracy is, everyone still laments the current character of our politicians.  Whatever merit capitalism has over other economic systems, it can not inhibit a greed powerful enough to collapse entire economies.  I am not suggesting we all become anarchists.  I am suggesting that while we need good laws and policies to help curb the systemic injustices of our world, ultimately all those injustices, all those evils that laws are meant to prevent arise from the human heart.  At the end of the day, we don't need more laws, we need God's Law written on our hearts.  We need ourselves and our world to be transformed by a God who is greater than us.  In other words, the genuinely Christians politic has more to do with sacrifice and faithfulness, our economy one of mercy and grace.

I think Isaiah 11 expresses this truth well, though in a much more poetic and eloquent manner than I have done here.  The people of Israel and Judah certainly knew the importance of good government.  They had prospered under the rule of David and Solomon but since then they had become divided and weakened by the poor leadership that followed.  Now Assyria stood on their doorstep and Isaiah was already prophesying that God's people would be reduced to a smoldering stump (see Is 6:13), a once mighty tree of a nation reduced to an almost nothing people sent into exile.

But in chapter 11, Isaiah says that out of that stump of Jesse, that kingly family that had been cut down by the foreign nations, a shoot would come forth and a branch would bear fruit.  However, as Isaiah goes on to describe this new king, it becomes clear that he can not be a mere human being.  Just another king who can be corrupted to play in the politics of power will not do God's people any good.  So while Isaiah longs for this new king; he also recognizes there is need of something more than simply improved politics.  The reign of this king must be the reign of God himself.  Isaiah tell us that the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, giving him the wisdom to judge justly and righteously, to uphold the cause of the poor, and to effortlessly defeat the wicked merely with the breath of his mouth.  Similar to last week's sermon text, this passage tells us that the king's just reign will lead to a radical peace.  Here it is a peace so complete that it is not limited to human relations but extends to all of creation.  Natural enemies, the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the goat, the lion and the calf lay down harmlessly together.  Infants play near cobras and adders without fear or harm.  This is a peace possible only when God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Of course, we understand Christ to have fulfilled this role as the one just judge and righteous king.  He is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, who was not blinded by power and influence, and who attended to the poor in his earthly ministry.  He is the one who we believe in his return will fully establish his reign as king and bring about the kind of complete justice and radical peace that is described in Isaiah 11.  It is not surprising then that John picks up the language of Isaiah 11 to portray the establishment of this kingdom in Revelation 19.  There Christ is portrayed as the one sitting on a white horse who is called faithful and true, who judges and makes war in righteousness.  He has the armies of heaven at his side but he does not need them because "from his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations" which is to say that, like the kingly figure in Isaiah 11, his words, the mere breath of his mouth is enough to defeat all the enemies of God's people.  While the imagery of Revelation 19 is undoubtedly violent, it speaks to the peaceable kingdom that will finally be established when Christ's reign is made complete.  It is that kingdom which we await in the season of Advent.  It is the politics of that kingdom which are the organizing force of our lives even while we wait for it to be established in all its glory.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Celebrating Advent

I'm sure I am not the first and won't be the last preacher to lament the status of this time of year in our culture.  Nevertheless, as I reflected on the reading from Isaiah this week, I couldn't help but think (again) about how little our practices in these December weeks have anything to do with the things we claim to value as the Church.  On Sunday, we are hearing about a savior who will bring a peace to our world so radical and complete that it will render weapons so useless and void of value that they will be melted down to be used in farm equipment.  And we celebrate and anticipate that peace with more shopping/consuming/stress/materialism/busyness/obligation?  Sounds like the opposite of peace to me.  Anyway, here are few practices, however small,  I thought might help us anticipate the radical peace that our scriptures promise during this Advent season at our church.  It's not a comprehensive list by any means.  I'd be interested in hearing any ideas you might add to the list.

·        Schedule moments of silent reflection throughout the month of December
·        Agree with a loved one to forgo giving each other another gift that neither of you really needs and give the money you would have spent to a charitable organization
·        Give your time to someone who may be lonely this holiday season
·        Read a chapter of the Gospel of Luke with your family every day in December.  If you start on Dec. 1 and read a chapter a day you will finish on Christmas Eve. 
·        Sign up to ring the bell for the Salvation Army on Saturday, Dec. 4.
·        Figure up the amount of money you spent on your largest shopping day and add that amount to your tithe one week in December. 
·        If stress and busyness are a problem for you this time of year, then commit now to saying no to at least one social obligation this holiday season.
·        Spend at least 15 minutes praying for peace and justice in our world for every hour that you spend shopping. 
·        In place of giving a gift to the pastor and his family (who already know how much you love them) give a gift to a child or teen in our church you don’t know very well (so that they will know they are loved as well). 
·        Don’t use a credit card for your holiday shopping.  If you can’t afford it now, then don’t buy it.  
·        Ask others for a Nazarene Compassionate Ministries Gift Card as their Christmas gift to you.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Trust, Justice, and Peace

The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
 It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths."
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD.
-Isaiah 2:1-5

These words poignantly capture the vision and hope of what Israel was called to be.  The city of Jerusalem is described here as a sort of lighthouse to all the nations.   It is lifted as a beacon to which all the nations flow like a river.  As the people of the world make this pilgrimage to Jerusalem they state the reason for their journey; that they may learn the ways of Yahweh.  In this way the highest of hopes Israel, God's express purpose for creating Israel, is fulfilled; God's law is not limited to his chosen people.  Instead, all the nations see the worth of Yahweh's teaching and therefore want to participate in it.  As a result, God's law goes out from Jerusalem and God himself acts as judge over the whole world.  The image of God as judge is a hopeful one because God is one true and just judge who will always rule righteously.  God's judgment is, in fact, so thoroughly just that it eliminates war.  The justice of God brings a peace so radical that the instruments of war, swords and spears, are no longer useful so they are converted into plows and pruning hooks, instruments that cultivate food and therefore, life.  Having been taught by Yahweh, the nations no longer have need to learn war any more.   

In a world like ours, it is tempting to see words like these as overly optimistic, even fanciful, unrealistic.  We all long for peace but isn't this a little naive?  

It is worth noting that these words were written at a time when swords and spears were prevalent and an immediate danger to the people of Judah.  While it is difficult to date these words with precision, they were surely uttered in the shadow of the threatening menace of Assyrian power. In comparison to the Assyrian superpower, Judah was a relatively weak and helpless nation, no match for Assyria's armies.  In Isaiah's day, it would have seemed that the only reason to say "that all the nations shall flow in to it (Jerusalem)"  would be if the armies of the nations were flooding into the city gates to conquer and pillage it. 

In contrast to that fearful situation, Isaiah reminds Judah of what they have been called to as the people of God: a people who walk in the light of the Lord.  This vision of what all the other nations will one day do concludes by reminding the house of Jacob what they must do now.  They must walk in the light that they have been given and trust God.  With the mighty Assyrian army on the doorstep of Jerusalem, it was tempting for God's people to grasp at any available political alliances that might save them.  Instead, Isaiah urges them to trust God to deliver them, to walk in his light, and have faith that God could accomplish the vision promised in these verses.  

In our world that kind of faith and trust will always seem naive.  There is really no denying that.  As long as we hold to the belief that trust in God is more powerful than tanks, we will not be counted among the sensible.  But Isaiah's vision is not one that fails to take into account the harsh realities of our world.  It simply goes on to also take into account the God who is mightier than any army.  It is ultimately this God, not our military and political intrigues, who will bring lasting peace to our world.  Trusting in that promise, we are called to be a people who walk in God's light whatever the circumstances.  

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Christ Alone

It seems it is always a temptation for the Church to make the gospel about Christ AND something else.  We know Christ is important (if we didn't, we wouldn't even bother with the title of "Christian") but it seems we often want to set something else up along side of Christ.  Paul corrects the Galatians for making it about Christ and works of the Law, the Corinthians for making it about Christ and their spiritual gifts.  While it is difficult to say exactly what the situation was in the Colossian church, it seems Paul is facing a similar problem there as well.  In this letter, Paul says things like
"See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ."  - 2:8
 "Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath... Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God." -2:16, 18-19

Paul goes on with similar admonitions in the verses that follow.  This seems to indicate that the Colossians have doubts about whether or not Christ alone is really sufficient for their salvation.  Paul's answer to those doubts is the magnificent Christological statement of Colossians 1:15-20.
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn from all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and trough him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross."  
 Many scholars believe that these verses were an early Christian hymn which Paul did not write but has used here to remind the Colossians of the foundation of the Christian faith.  Paul is in essence saying "Remember, this is what you believe: Christ is God.  He is the invisible God made visible in human flesh.  As God, he is the creator and redeemer of all people."  As such, the God who is Christ is sufficient for our salvation.  As Paul says in v. 13-14
"He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."
Of course, this is Christian Faith 101.  We know that to be Christian is to confess Christ as Lord and Savior. Yet one might ask how deeply we have allowed this truth to pervade our lives.  Is Christ really sufficient for us?  We, too, often want Christ AND something else; Christ AND success, Christ AND happiness, Christ AND the respect of others, and the list goes on.  How many of us can really claim to have decided, as Paul said he did, "to know nothing ...except Christ and him crucified"?