Monday, March 26, 2012

Of Fruit and Temples

I planned to preach from Psalm 118 this Sunday and probably will still refer to it one way or another.  Since this is the Psalm the lectionary provides for every Palm Sunday and because it is quoted in the New Testament, I've already interacted with this Psalm a number of times before.  Some conglomeration of what I've written here, here, and here will probably all end up in my sermon this Sunday.  But for now I want to focus on one particular irony of the way this Psalm shows up in the Gospel of Mark.

It is especially striking to me the way quotations from Psalm 118 form bookends to a group of stories in Mark 11 and 12.  The (sort of) short version, without rehearsing too much of what I've said in those other posts, is that Jesus rides into Jerusalem during the week of Passover and the crowds welcome him with shouts of "Hossana!" and "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."  That is to say, the people are welcoming Jesus as their deliverer by using the words of Psalm 118, a psalm used at Passover as a celebration of the Lord's deliverance.  Jesus' procession stops at the Temple, much as the Passover procession in which Psalm 118 was recited climaxed as the temple, but Jesus' procession is sort of anti-climatic in that after arriving at the Temple he simply leaves.

On the following day, he is on his way back to the Temple when he spots a fig tree.  Upon closer examination, Jesus finds that the tree is not bearing fruit and curses it.  This seems a little unfair for the poor fig tree since Mark notes that it was not even the season for figs.  Apparently still grumpy about missing out on his fig-breakfast, Jesus then enters the Temple and does his whole righteous anger thing, kicking out all those buying and selling.  Upon leaving the Temple, the disciples notice that the fig tree Jesus cursed has withered.  It is here that we see a piece of Mark's masterful story telling on display: the fig tree is a symbol for the Temple in that it too has failed to bear fruit and is now out of season.  As a result, Jesus cursed it just as he did the fig tree.

Naturally, the religious leaders want to know where Jesus gets his authority for all this cursing and carrying on.  So they ask him.  And naturally, Jesus answers with an enigmatic question of his own and a story.  The story is about some tenants who refuse to give the landowner his share of the harvest.  The tenants beat and reject the owner's servants and even kill his son.  At this point even the religious leaders agree that those tenants are in trouble.  Jesus then responds with more words from Psalm 118; "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes."  Mark notes upon the conclusion of this story and quotation that the religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus but were afraid to do so because of the people.

So we have this pattern:
Quote from Psalm 118
A tree that fails to produce its fruit
A temple that fails to produce its fruit
Tenants that fail to produce their fruit
Quote from Psalm 118

It would seem Mark wants us to read these stories about failures of fruit bearing within the framework of deliverance celebrated in Psalm 118.  When we do so, these stories become thick with irony.  In Psalm 118, it was Israel which was the stone the builders (the other nations) rejected but that God made the chief cornerstone of his plan.  The religious leaders saw themselves as protecting Israel's place in that plan.  However, Jesus has declared their efforts fruitless and proclaimed that he is now God's chosen cornerstone; that it is through himself that the deliverance of Psalm 118 will come.  The words of the very same Psalm can be used in the people's celebration of Jesus' deliverance and the religious leaders rejection of him.  And in doing that rejecting, the religious leaders show themselves to be exactly the fruitless tenants who reject God's chosen one that Jesus has said they are.  They fulfill his prophecy about them in their rejection of him as a prophet.

Despite the literary intricacy and skill involved in Mark's telling of these stories, I suppose the question for us is still a relatively simple one.  Do our lives bear the fruit of God's deliverance?  However, if the question is simple, Mark's telling of the story cautions us against a simplistic answer.  For we must remember that the religious leaders would have readily answered this question with a clear and resolute "Yes!  Of course, we are bearing the fruit of God's deliverance.  We are God's chosen, after all!"  It might be just as tempting for us to say "Yes!  Of course, we are bearing the fruit of God's deliverance.  We are Christians, after all!".  Perhaps we too have confused certain labels and institutions with real fruit bearing.  May these final weeks of Lent be a time when we re-examine our assumptions about what kind of fruit it is that God desires.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Love Means Holding Your Nose

Several weeks ago, as we began the season of Lent, we heard Psalm 25 as a pattern for prayer.  It served as one example of what it means to respond to this life with God.  And good pattern though it is, it is just one example since there are 149 other Psalms, 149 other prayers ready to be offered.  In fact, we heard a very different prayer the very next week.  One that traded the reverence and diffidence of Psalm 25 for anger and accusation.  But somewhat remarkably we confessed that the words of Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" was just as much an appropriate part of our God-speak as were the pious words of Psalm 25.  Two weeks ago we heard a Psalm of praise for the God who is revealed both in creation and in the Law.  This week we have a prayer of yet another variety; one of confession and a request for cleansing from sin.

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions."  The Psalmist is quite literally asking God to "plaster over, to whitewash" his sin.  The Psalmist is looking for forgiveness so thorough that all record of the wrong is erased; asking God to act out of God's mercy and faithfulness rather than according to what the Psalmist deserves.  In fact, God is asked to "Hide your face from my sins" even as God is doing the blotting out.  The image is something akin to someone painting over an image they find so abhorrent that they can't even look at what they are painting over; like a parent trying to avoid the smell of dirty diaper even as they clean up their child.

This Psalm reminds me of the few times my daughter ate too much too close to bedtime when she was younger.  One time in particular I remember waking up to the sound of her crying and walking down the hall to her room wondering what was wrong but the moment I walked into her room, even in the darkness of night, any question about what was wrong immediately left me.  The smell of vomit was undeniable and overwhelming; enough to force me to concentrate very hard on not making my own contribution to the problem.  The introduction at the beginning of Psalm 51 says that the Psalm was written by David as a response to Nathan's uncovering of David's rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah.  Perhaps when we read that story we should see God doing his best not to puke over what David has done.

The words of this Psalm show that David recognizes the repugnant nature of his sin.  It is so foul that it threatens to drive God away.  In spite of that the Psalmist also recognizes that it is only God who can clean him up.  So he asks God not only to blot out the outward marks of his sin but also to "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me."  The Psalmist is in need of not only forgiveness but a cleansing so deep that it goes to the very core of his being.

The smell of Hannah's vomit was nearly enough to drive me away as well.  But here was this little girl that I adore, who was sick and confused, and who only wanted her daddy to hold her and clean her up.  So I did my best to hold my nose and my gag reflex and did what she couldn't do for herself.  Obviously, this doesn't make me extraordinary.  It only makes me her father.

Growing up, I often heard the idea that God the Father turned his back on his Son while he hung on the cross.  The reasoning went that Jesus had taken upon himself the sin of the whole world and that God in all his holiness could not possibly look upon all that sin so he had to turn from his Son.  Why else, it was said, would Jesus have uttered those words of Psalm 22 "My God, why have you forsaken me?".  This strikes me as, at best, only getting half the story right.  Yes, of course, God finds our sin repulsive, so much so that God wishes to avert both eyes and nostrils from its sight and smell.  There is a very real sense in which sin threatens to drive God away from us.

But the other half of the story is that of the Father who, even while nearly gagging on the stench we have created, still reaches into our vomitaceous mess with his two hands of Son and Spirit in order to do for us what we can not do for ourselves; a Father whose love is greater than his gag reflex.  Perhaps, when we think of Jesus on the cross, rather than the Father turning his back on the Son, we should imagine the Father holding close his beloved Son, even as he wreaks of the sin of the world.  Perhaps this is the real glory of proclaiming that God is love; that even when the profane horror of crucifixion and the weight of all the world's sin threatened to break the bond of love between Father and Son that bond held fast.  That  even when sin itself entered the very life of the Triune God by Jesus taking it upon himself it did not dissolve the loving relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but instead that love swallowed up the sin of the world and overwhelmed it.  Perhaps this, most of all times, was when Jesus knew his Father as his Abba.

Psalm 51 speaks out of the conviction that God is willing to hold his nose for us.  Indeed, our Father is even willing to get some of our own filth and stench all over him if that is what it takes to hold us in his arms and clean us up.  Because his love for us is greater than his repulsion at our sin.  Because this kind of love is who God is.  Because this is what it means for us to call him our Abba.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Holy, Righteous, and Good Law

"The heavens declare the glory of God" begins Psalm 19.  The Psalmist goes on to speak of God's creation as God's own words to us.  Every new day is a new speech from God, every new night a new revelation.  This word from God goes forth throughout all of creation since creation itself is the word that God is speaking.  In v. 5-6, the Psalmist focuses specifically on the daily movement of the sun across the sky as one of God's greatest works.  Wherever its light touches, the glory of God is revealed.

However, the Psalmist also acknowledges that while creation might be a word from God to us, it is not the whole conversation.  We are not left to make every inference about God from creation alone.  Indeed, though the Psalmist doesn't explicitly state it here, any faithful Israelite would certainly see that as a quick path to idolatry.  We need something more.

So after praising God for God's revelation in nature the Psalmist gives thanks for God's revelation in God's law.  This law the Psalmist describes as perfect - that is, it is complete, blameless.  It brings wholeness and clarity to what would be an otherwise fuzzy and potentially misleading picture of God's character. It tells us what we could never surmise about God from creation alone.  We are told that this law revives the soul, makes the simple wise, gladdens the heart, brightens the eyes, endures forever, and is altogether righteous.  Therefore, it is to be desired more than the finest gold and the sweetest honey.  The law is not a burden or a list of rules.  It is something to be cherished and enjoyed because it reveals God to us.  Without it, we would be left worshiping dumb idols of our own making.

The final verses of the Psalm turn from words of praise to words of request.  The Psalmist recognizes that he, even with the law as a guide, can not discern his own faults (v.12) so the Psalmist prayer is for forgiveness for when he does sin and for safe keeping from the ways of sin.  In v. 13:
"Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression."  
This is a telling request for in it is a recognition, that even the law, for all of its perfection and revelation of the character of God, is not itself able to prevent the Psalmist from sinning.  The Psalmist not only needs God's law to know what is right but also needs God's power to do what is right.  As the Psalmist says "let them (sins) not have dominion over me!".  There is a recognition that even with the law before us and even as we confess that it is a good and perfect law, the law itself is still powerless to defend us against sin.  We need God himself to act on our behalf in order to keep us blameless.

As Christians, we confess that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are that act of God on our behalf.  It is precisely this idea for which the apostle Paul argues in Romans 5-8.  By his death and resurrection, Jesus has inaugurated a new age in which we are not only forgiven but in which the power of sin has been broken so that it no longer has dominion over us.  We are now empowered by the Spirit to fulfill the law of Christ so that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts are indeed acceptable to the Lord who is our rock and redeemer.