Monday, January 28, 2013

Hearing in the Present

As I mentioned last week, the people of Israel have returned from their exile in Babylon (which has in turn been conquered by Persia). They have had time to begin rebuilding their own homes and livelihood and now, through the prophet Haggai, God has called upon the people to begin rebuilding God's house, the temple. The people have been stirred by God's call and have begun to carry out that task.

The second chapter of Haggai begins by noting that it is only about a month after this rebuilding project began and the naysayers are hard at work. God commands Haggai to say:
"Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?"
Apparently, nostalgia was as prevalent in 520 B.C. as it is today. These people who have been returned from exile, at least the few who are old enough to remember the former temple, are longing for the "glory days". They see this puny temple that is being rebuilt and they know that it will never compare to the temple Solomon had built. And they are right. That house was built by one of Israel's greatest kings at the height of Israel's power. It was constructed with stone and overlaid with fine cedar and cypress imported from foreign lands much of which was itself overlaid with gold. It was a house filled with luxury and ornate craftsmanship; a symbol of the wealth and strength of Solomon's empire. The temple described in Haggai is built with nothing more than the timber that the people can collect from nearby forests. It is as nothing in the eyes of those who beheld the glory of the former temple.

But God tells the people through Haggai that it is not the appearance of the house that matters but the One who dwells in it. This is the God who brought the people up out of their slavery in Egypt. This is the God who reigns sovereign over the nations. This God says:
"Work, for I am with you... My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not."
The current temple may not be much to look at. It may not resemble the glory of that former temple. But the same God who enabled Solomon to build that former temple is the God who continues to dwell with this people even now. And that, Haggai says, should be their ultimate source of strength and hope. The temple was never supposed to be about the temple. It was always supposed to be God's presence with the people. It was only God's presence that made this temple or this people what they were.

There is a question, or a variety of questions with the same underlying theme,  I am asked frequently by folks in my church.
"Pastor, what do you think will happen to our church?"
Its a question that I sense is filled with pain, anxiety, and a longing for days gone by. It is a question that remembers the "glory days" of our church; a time when the building was so full there was felt a need for a new one, a time when church was a regular part of people's lives, and perhaps a time when it seemed just a little easier to be a Christian and to invite others to be as well. It is a question for which I do not have an answer. Like the days of Haggai, like all times really, these are uncertain times.

But in these uncertain these times most of all... God still speaks. God reminds us that it was never about the temple. It was never about the attendance numbers or the building or the pastor or all the things good things we could do as a church. It has always been and will always be about the presence of God among us. The God who delivered us from our slavery resides among us. The God who will one day shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land and all the nations resides among us. And this God who resides among us promises us that "the latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former."

Our task in these uncertain times is not to get back to the days of old. It is to hear God's voice in the present, to be stirred, and to begin the work of rebuilding, however, un-glamorous that work may seem. For our focus, our hope, our foundation as the Church is and must always be responding to the presence and the voice of God among us.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Rebuilding God's House

God speaks. The people are stirred. God's house is built.

This seems to me to be the essence of Haggai chapter 1.

God speaks by the prophet Haggai to a particular people in a particular time and place. The book of Haggai begins by noting that particularity quite precisely. "In the second year of Darius, the king, in the sixth month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubabbel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest...". That is, in 520 B.C. God spoke through Haggai to the governor and priest of a people recently returned from exile. God's people have been allowed to return to their homeland by Cyrus, ruler of Persia. We get the sense that they have had the opportunity to rebuild in that homeland but that the situation is still far from ideal. These people dwell there not as an independent nation but as a sub-province of the mighty Persian empire and Haggai tells us that the people live with drought and famine. In other words, they are a people who are making it but whose future is still very uncertain.

In the midst of that uncertainty, God speaks to this people. God calls the people to turn their attention away from their own homes and uncertain futures and toward God's house. The people have had time after returning from exile to rebuild their own homes but God's house, the temple, still lies in ruins. God declares by the prophet Haggai that now is the time for God's house to be rebuilt.

Haggai tells us that the message God spoke through him stirred the people. Zerubabbel, Joshua, and all the people responded to God's call and began to rebuild the temple.

God spoke. The people were stirred. God's house began to be rebuilt.

What a novel idea.

If God could speak to a people in 520 B.C in a little sub-province of the Persian empire and their spirit could be stirred and they could begin to rebuild God's house, perhaps the same could happen in 2013 in a little town in central Illinois.

Of course, for us to begin rebuilding God's house is not a matter of constructing a building. The New Testament tells us repeatedly that WE are God's house. WE are the place that God's Spirit dwells. If God is to have a house, WE are the ones who must be rebuilt. But that is not a rebuilding we can accomplish ourselves. First, God must speak. Which means we must listen.

Esther's Baptism

Monday, January 7, 2013

Water and Grace

The people are whispering about John. "Is he the one? Is this the Christ we've been looking for?"

John answers in very strong terms. He is not the one. In fact, the One will be so incomparably greater than John that John will not even be worthy to untie the strap of his sandal. John has only baptized with water but the One who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. 

These are images of judgment but it is judgment for the purpose of refinement and purification, not mere destruction. John is proclaiming that the One who comes after him will purify Israel. He will be the refiner's fire spoken of in Malachi. He will purge Israel of its corruption. He will baptize, not merely with water, but with God's own Holy Spirit thus making real holiness possible. 

Shortly after John's proclamation of the One, Jesus appears on the scene. After having been baptized by John, the heavens are opened, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, and a voice from heaven proclaims "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." The first phrase this voice speaks is supplied by Psalm 2:7. This Psalm spoke of the special relationship between God and God's anointed king; a relationship so unique in its closeness that God referred to the king as his son. Luke's point is fairly obvious. This is the One about whom John had been speaking. He is the Lord's anointed. 

But if you read Luke 3:15-22, you'll notice that the story doesn't run quite as smoothly as I've presented it here. There is an interruption between John's proclamation and his baptism of Jesus. V. 18-20 tell us that Herod had locked up John in prison because John had reproved Herod for his relationship with Herodias, his brother's wife. Chronologically speaking, these verses do not belong here. That is, this imprisonment of John obviously comes later. Why does Luke interrupt his story about Jesus' baptism by John with this aside about John's later fate? 

Luke is too polished a story teller for this to be an accident. This is not an "Oh, by the way, let me tell you what ends up happening to John while I'm thinking about it." Luke has placed this story about John's imprisonment here intentionally. It is a foreshadowing of what is to come. Luke intends for us to connect Jesus' baptism with John's imprisonment. Jesus is, indeed, the Lord's anointed but his path will be similar to John's. By being baptized by John, Jesus has essentially cast his lot with John. While John proclaims the very real difference between himself and Jesus, Jesus' baptism signifies what is the same. Like John, Jesus will be a prophetic voice at odds with the powers that be and his prophetic voice will earn him a fate similar to John's. 

I believe we are doing something similar when we are baptized into Christ. Just as Jesus identifies with John in his baptism, I believe we are identifying with Jesus in our own baptism. We confess that this Jesus is the Lord's Christ, the one who is filled with the Holy Spirit, the one who can refine us and baptize us with the Holy Spirit. And in making that confession, we also confess that we know where this path leads; that this journey must go through the cross. There is no confessing Jesus as Lord without also confessing him as crucified. When we are baptized, we confess that we want to be identified with this Jesus, this crucified Messiah. We signify that we intend to join his movement toward the cross. 

This Sunday, we will baptize our youngest daughter just as we have our other two children. The sheer cuteness of a child only a few months old, the mundane simplicity of plain water poured from a pitcher into a waiting basin, the day to day grind it takes to raise a child, and the weekly repetitions and routines of frail, human attempts at worship all threaten to drown out the gravity of that moment when a parent chooses to baptize a child. For in that moment, we will be committing her to the way of Jesus and his kingdom and, in so doing, we acknowledge that we are setting her feet - those weak and helpless feet of our precious baby girl, feet not yet able to support the weight of her own body - along a path that must eventually bear the weight of a cross. If that seems a painfully stark contrast, I mean for it to be. Far too often we forget - I forget - what it means to call ourselves both parents and disciples of Jesus. When we baptize Esther, we confess that she is on loan to us. That she is God's first and ours second. That we are only stewards. As such, it is not our task to make her happy or successful. It is to reveal to her the way of the crucified messiah by continually walking that path toward the cross ourselves. 

Of course, there will be a day (and many after that initial one) when Esther will choose or reject this path for herself. Jess and I will not always be able to make this confession on her behalf as we do now. However, we baptize her now believing that long before we ever chose to walk this cross-shaped path, Christ walked it on our behalf. Before Christ called us to identify with his suffering, he identified with us in our suffering. The Son of God cast his lot with us human beings choosing to have his fate bound to ours, his divinity bound to our flesh. It is only possible for us to choose him because he first chose us. That is why Esther can be baptized into the Body of Christ before she is even old enough to be aware of her own body. God has already chosen her - just as he chose all of us - by his grace, apart from any of our own doing. We will baptize our daughter because it is among our deepest of hopes that Esther will walk in that grace for all of her days. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Burn Out Bright

"Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?" Herod gathered all of the religious experts and scholars to find out where this king might be. Their answer comes from Micah 5:2
"And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel."  
So Herod sends the wise men on their way to Bethlehem. Upon finding Jesus, they fall down and worship him. Jesus is the King of the Jews for whom the wise men were looking. He is the mighty ruler spoken of by the prophet Micah who would deliver his people.

But there is more to Matthew's story. Without mentioning it specifically, Matthew tells the story of the wise men in a way reminiscent of next Sunday's Old Testament reading, Isaiah 60. Similar to the passage from Micah, this chapter from Isaiah speaks of Israel's deliverance. The prophet says to Israel:
"Arise, shine, for you light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising."
It's that last verse which is especially interesting for the story of the Magi in Matthew. Isaiah 60 envisions a day when Israel's deliverance will be so complete that not only will it stand prosperous and secure but it will also be like a beacon of light to which all the others kings and nations will be drawn. V. 5-6 read:
"the wealth of the nations shall come to you...They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord."
Matthew tells a story in which gentile, pagan kings are drawn to a shining light over Israel. They bring with them gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The wealth of the nations has been symbolically brought into Israel. Thus Matthew shows us that Jesus is not only the King of the Jews who will deliver Israel. He is also the king who will complete Isaiah's vision of a day when all the nations of the earth will come to the God of Israel.

This is good news. The best of news. There's just one problem. There is already a king in Israel. His name is Herod and he is not interested in giving up his power to a toddler. Quite to the contrary, he is so set on maintaining his power that he will use it to murder every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem.

This Sunday is the day known as Epiphany and begins the season by the same name. Epiphany is a season for contemplating the kingdom of Christ. It is appropriate then that it begins with the story of the wise men visiting Jesus for there may be no other story more fitting for contrasting the nature of Christ's kingdom with the kingdom of this world. Matthew proclaims to us without hesitation that Jesus is a king.... The King. But he also shows us in his presentation of Jesus that this king and his kingdom are unlike any other. Whereas the Herod's of the world build their kingdom on the use of force and power, Jesus' kingdom is one of humility and vulnerability. Herod's kingdom holds all the swords. Jesus' kingdom holds only a flight to Egypt and the promise of a cross.

I feel this is a message I repeat a lot. It seems to come up so much in my preaching that I often wonder if my congregation grows tired of hearing it. When I come to a passage of Scripture like this one, where the weakness and vulnerability of Jesus and his kingdom as compared to the kingdoms of this world is on display, I often go out of my way to look for another theme, something else, something new to say. And yet I can't seem to escape it. Perhaps if it is a message that Scripture finds worthy of repetition then it is one that bears repeating in my preaching.

I imagine most of us don't see ourselves as being in much danger of being like Herod. There is, undoubtedly, an enormous difference between the murderous ways of Herod and the ways we practice church. But that doesn't mean we haven't bought into the basic premise of his rule, the premise of gaining and maintaining power, the idea that the goal of our existence as a church is to constantly expand our influence. We often assume, along with every other power structure in the world, that bigger is better.

I believe Christ calls us to something different from that way of thinking and that his kingdom is founded on different principles. Rather than being a kingdom which is concerned with perpetuating its own existence and rule, I believe Christ's kingdom is one that comes into being only by constantly giving itself away. It is a kingdom that arises out of the little, otherwise insignificant town of Bethlehem in the midst of a peasant family and humble conditions. It is one that is often painfully vulnerable to the murderous forces in our world. But it is also one that, in all of its vulnerability, is a light which will draw all the nations of the world into the worship of its King.

That light burns brightest, not when we insist on its own preservation, but when we imitate a savior "who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross."