Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A - January 16, 2011 (John 1:29-42)

There is a contrast in this story of the opening days of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in John’s gospel between things said about Jesus and things said to Jesus. That is, this account with John the Baptist and the first disciples contains both conversations concerning who Jesus is as well as conversations with the person of Jesus, himself. It’s a little like the difference between reading the quotes from other famous writers and publishers about a book that appear on the back of a book jacket and then opening the book and reading it, yourself. The quotes and reviews on the back are true and helpful.  Reading them helps you understand the importance of what is contained within, but reading the comments is not exactly the same as reading the book itself.

John the Baptist gives us the best examples of the former—the comments on the back of the book about Jesus. For one, John says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. At another point, John says that Jesus is greater than he (John) is even though Jesus is appearing after him, because Jesus was actually before him. John also says that he saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove and remaining on Jesus. And, lastly, John also claims that Jesus is the Son of God. A little later, Andrew, one of the new disciples, remarks to his brother that Jesus is the Messiah, which is enough to pique Simon’s interest into investigating Jesus, himself.

Many of these things that are said about Jesus are highly metaphorical; that is, they point to something else that helps us understand some aspect of Jesus and his ministry. For example, when John the Baptist calls Jesus the Lamb of God, we know he doesn’t mean that Jesus is actually a bleating farm creature whose fur is occasionally shorn and made into clothes. Rather, one thing that John might mean is that Jesus is like the unblemished lamb that ancient Israel once offered up during the Passover in order to be freed from slavery in Egypt. That remark, to be sure, had a resonance to it in Jesus’ Jewish culture that doesn’t necessarily exist in ours. Jesus will die to set us free. Likewise, when John the Baptist mentions that Jesus was before him we know he is making a statement about Jesus’ eternal nature—that the Son, long before he became incarnate as Jesus, actually existed alongside with the Father from the beginning of time.

Ecce Agnus Dei, Dieric the Elder, 1468
 All of the things that John the Baptist tell us—and his disciples, of course—about Jesus are certainly true, and they help his disciples make the transition to following Jesus. They help us in understanding who Jesus is sent by God to be. However, it is the disciples themselves who model the conversations with Jesus, himself. They are the ones who, you may say, open the book and begin reading. They follow after him and wind up in the place where he is staying. They hang out with him, staying until late in the day, talking and conversing with him, asking him questions. And, as we see with Andrew, they include others in the process as they go. All along, the disciples remain with him, reading this new, never-ending book called Jesus who has come to take away the sins of the world.

Both of these types of conversations are necessary and valid. Christian faith employs them both. We need to hear the testimonies that people make about how God is active in Christ just as we need to learn how to remain in conversation with Christ, ourselves. The danger is when religious devotion becomes too focused on the former and not enough on the latter—at least, that is the trend I can notice in my own life, so perhaps I should speak for myself. A lot of effort can be put into talking about Jesus without actually talking to him. It is often easier to point to him and make claims about his identity—whether we believe in him or not—than it is to pick up our lives and follow after him for a deeper conversation.

When it comes to being a disciple, there is no getting around the need for those conversations with Jesus, of learning, day by day, a little more about him. To be sure, that is what Jesus is after. Jesus is continually drawing us into that conversation, repeatedly inviting us into that relationship. When we forget this part of Christian faith, it helps to remember that the first words from Jesus’ lips in the entire gospel are in the form of a question: “What are you looking for?” The disciples of John the Baptist run up to Jesus and he turns to see them following along. Before they even address him he asks, “What are you looking for?” It’s a question that both invites us into deeper dialogue and causes us to reflect on our own intentions, for some of the things we’re seeking at the moment may not be offered by Christ the Messiah.

And if that response isn’t open-ended enough, then come the next words from his lips. Asked where he is staying, Jesus responds, simply, “Come and see.” This all suggests to me that what we’re invited into when it comes to faith in Jesus is not always so many answers but, rather, deeper questions. It conveys that we are summoned by someone who is really most interested to learn what we’re seeking, what makes us tick, what drives us onward, what might be missing. Such an introduction implies that we are called by a God who just might be more invested in a relationship with us than in our potential for spouting doctrine and dogma.

Not too long ago one of my close friends entered a prolonged period of doubt in his faith that he describes as intense and painful. I am not aware of the details of what brought his current crisis on, but in our conversations I hear him struggling honestly and openly about some of the basic tenets of Christian faith…both the claims about Jesus and some of the claims Jesus makes. While I am thankful he shares this with me, I am also aware of my own ineptitude at how to handle his questions. It is often a struggle to put into words what I have come to believe and why, especially up against his particular questions, which, in many cases, are questions I’ve never been inclined to ask. I asked him one time, in the midst of one of our conversations (and frustrated with how I was responding to him), what had he had found helpful in any conversations with other believers in easing his heart and possibly restoring his faith. One of the first things he responded with was, “When people simply ask questions, rather than just doling out answers. Openness to dialogue.” There, in the heart of a non-believer, I found one of the truest examples of a disciple: one who understood the nature of a God who, in Christ, doesn’t just stick to doling out answers, but rather enjoys the give-and-take of questions and, at the core, deeply wants to know what it actually is that we’re seeking.

What about you? Do you hear the things about Jesus and take them (or leave them) at face value, or do you pursue him Do you reflect on what others testify about Jesus, and do you then linger with him in conversation through worship and through prayer, and through the service to others in his name?

detail, The Crucifixion, Matthias Gruenewald, 1515
What are you looking for? The nature of Christian discipleship begins here with the testimony of John the Baptist and the curious conversations of Andrew, Simon Peter, and the unnamed third disciple. As it turns out, it is not a command to decide, but an invitation to come and see. We hear the promise of Jesus and are called out of our selves into a journey that is rooted in community, dialogue, sharing, and the hope of a new identity as people who are forgiven and set free.

That is one of my dreams for the church: that we can serve as John the Baptists as well as we serve as disciples. That we can be people who boldly point to Christ as the one who comes to take away the sins of the world as well as the community who helps the world engage Christ in face-to-face dialogue. It is my hope that, by the strength of the Spirit, we can reach out to include the world in Christ’s mission of love as well as standing up in the midst of the world to testify to him.

For if there is anything which the news events of the past week have reminded me it is that the self can be a very lonely, dangerous place. Regardless of how much our society tends to glorify the power and even the sanctity of the individual, humans are wired for community and honest, open dialogue. The blame game that ensued after the shooting in Tucson only proved that point even more. It is vital in our national and personal discussions after tragedies like this that we do not neglect to recognize that, truth be told, there is some of Jared Loughner in all of us, just as there is some of Gabrielle Giffords, too. None of us is immune to the decay of sin, and all of us are vulnerable. We all have the capacity to blow things apart and to fight for life. As Bono sings in one of my favorite U2 lines, “I’m not broke [sic], but you can see the cracks.”

And therefore, it is important that in our urge to point fingers and assign fault for any great sin that we do not ignore that finger of John the Baptist, which is ever focused on Jesus who comes and takes away the sin of the world, who comes to repair the cracks and make us whole. It is important that, in our desire to have our arguments and ask our questions that we not forget to spend time in conversation with this God who comes down and personally gets involved in the tragedy of human-being and miraculously rises to new life. In the invitation to a life of self-sacrifice and forgiveness, Jesus does take away the sins of the world.

That is what we discover when we come and see.

That is what we find out when we, in times of hope and times of despair, in times of faith and in times of doubt, open the book that is Jesus and begin to read.

(And, for now, this is one pastor who has spoken too much about Jesus, and feels it’s time to sit down.)

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Baptism of Our Lord, Year A - January 9, 2011 (Psalm 29, Matthew 3:13-17)

Many years ago, in the summer between two semesters of college, I experienced an event in nature that had a profound effect on my faith. It has never occurred to me very often to share it because I was totally alone when the event happened, and so it became a very personal—almost private—epiphany. On second thought, however, it was an experience that, at the time, so intensely deepened my understanding of God’s grace that I think it might have helped put me on the path towards my vocation as pastor. In a way, that makes that epiphany less private, like it somehow now belongs to everyone who might come in contact with me, even if I never mention it explicitly.

The event of which I speak was nothing more than the peculiarly brilliant glow of a sunset against the snow-covered side of a large mountain in the Sierra Nevada range in California. It happened while I was on a 24-hour period of solitary retreat that was a part of a fourteen-day Outward Bound course in mountaineering. I was tired and alone in my thoughts at the end of a long day, sitting on my sleeping bag on a sun-hardened snow drift, when I looked up into the distance at the perfect instant to catch the rays of evening sun glancing off this large, white mountain. It is difficult to rate sunsets, but at the time, it was the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen, by far.

Yet it was more than a beautiful sunset. As I was moved by its brightness and intensity, it seemed to allow what poet Percy Shelley once called “the everlasting universe of things flow through [my] mind.” And, like all sunsets, it was fleeting. But in the minutes that it lasted, I was consumed by awe and thanksgiving: awe, not simply because of its radiance, but more because I felt something so beautiful in nature—and my appreciation of it—could never occur by accident; and thanksgiving, for the pleasure of seeing it (and that the view wasn’t obscured by thousands of blackbirds plummeting from the sky!) I felt, in a way, as if that sunset might have been a message sent from God directly to me, assuring me not only of his presence, but also of his constant care. I remember what affected me most about the experience was the realization that this vista, as spectacular as it was, was not a one-time occurrence. That kind of sunset happened every day, the world over. I was—and still am—sure that I experienced God’s glory and grace in that sunset, and I was thankful for the opportunity to appreciate it—if that makes any sense.

I’m sure many— if not all—of you have had similar experiences with the grandeur and power of nature. It may not be a sunset, but perhaps the sight of a waterfall, or the complexity of the atom, or the birth of a child, or a loved one making an unexpected recovery from illness. Occurrences with the natural, created world—both the mundane and the extraordinary—have always had a way of communicating something about God’s power and God’s wisdom. Often they catch us off guard, but sometimes we grow into these epiphanies more gradually. Whether or not we can explain the phenomena scientifically makes little difference. They are glimpses of what God is like and how God manifests God’s love to us.

Ancient Israel was no exception in experiencing this. They, too, lived in a natural world that was awesome and beautiful and difficult to explain. That, in fact, is what Psalm 29 is trying to communicate this morning. Psalm 29 is a unique psalm: no other portion of Holy Scripture so closely associates events in nature with the glory of God. In it, the psalmist has clearly experienced some natural event—in this case, it sounds like it might have been a thunderstorm—and he is moved to expound upon God’s power. The imagery is vivid: cedar trees are snapped, like those in hurricane-force winds; the desert shakes and the oak trees writhe and sway; rain and wind consume the landscape so much that the hills in the distance skip like young wild oxen.

The imagery is truly descriptive, but the particular wording of the psalm is more peculiar yet: each verse includes God’s name, sometimes twice. It is thought that this psalm might have actually been partly borrowed from Israel’s nature-worshiping neighbors. Israel, of course, adapted and re-worded it so that it was clear that the wind and the rain were not gods themselves, or tools of a vindictive pantheon of deities overhead, but, rather, manifestations of the one true God’s power. The first two lines of the psalm make clear where the people are to ascribe all this glory: to none other than the Lord, the God of Israel, whose name then rings out, quite repetitively, throughout the song.

And where are the people in the psalm? They are in the temple, praising God and crying “glory!” which would have essentially been the words on my lips as I sat on the side of that mountain years ago: “Glory!” But here Israel is together, hearing about or remembering this magnificent storm, making a public pronouncement about God’s power.

Yet for all our examples of epiphanies and for all of Israel’s poetry regarding God’s grandeur, all things pale in comparison to what happens when Jesus of Nazareth steps into the Jordan River to be baptized by John.

Imagine, for a second, bringing up Google Earth on your computer screen. There, before you, is a color satellite image of the whole earth, or maybe most of one hemisphere. The ridges of the mountain ranges are visible, as are some of the folds and creases of the ocean floor. As if offering God’s own perspective, the whole planet is in our domain…the thunderstorms, the sunsets, and everything else. Then, imagine going to the place where you type in an address or a location. What happens next? As soon as a specific location gets entered, the satellite’s eye immediately zooms in and focuses on that one particular spot. We hover, perhaps like a descending dove, just above one particular spot in God’s creation.

That is akin to what happens at Jesus’ baptism. As Jesus steps into that muddy river, and has his head breaks the surface as he comes back up, God’s glory and power and grace zoom in and become centered in one place like never before. At that point, God’s voice is heard overhead, and it is not announcing, as it was before, “This is my thunderstorm, the sign of my power,” nor does it proclaim, as I once heard, “This is my sunset, the Beautiful.” Rather, now God’s voice declares, “This is my Son, the beloved.” God is acting in a new way—a new message sent straight to us—and his glory and power and beauty and love will be visible and real to us in a way that is altogether unprecedented.

Jesus, God’s own Son, is now walking on the earth, and his baptism claims him from a private, personal existence and sets him forth as a public leader and servant. In his baptism, Jesus is lifted out of relative obscurity set forth as a God’s anointed, one who will at the same time encapsulate for Israel all the righteousness they could never muster and for God all the love for his creation. In his baptism, we not only learn to ascribe to Jesus the glory due God’s name, but God also ascribes to his Son the love and sacrifice he has for us.

For from the waters of the Jordan Jesus will rise and not go home. He will go out into the wilderness to be tempted. From there to the villages and town of Galilee of Judea, preaching God’s word and calling people to take part in God’s kingdom. From this point in the waters of Jordan, you can draw a line directly through all those things right to the judgment hall of Pontius Pilate and, from there, to the cross—and trust all along that God is still zoomed in on him.

It is a challenge to many a person’s faith—including my own—to remember that to this day there is no more positive and definitive demonstration of God’s reality, or of God’s power—and most certainly of God’s love—than in Jesus Christ, no matter how many other beautiful sunsets we’ve seen or how many loved ones we see miraculously healed. Jesus is still the focal point of God’s efforts, that Google Earth zoom effect that we can’t deny. In his small book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this:
“It is not in our life that God’s help and presence must be proved, but rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ…The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important that the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day.” (Life Together, HarperSanFrancisco, 1954, p54)

Those have always been challenging words for me, because I have a terrible tendency to think that everything—even God’s love—is all about me. And really, it isn't.  It's more about Jesus.  And while my experiences with sunsets and even hills skipping like young wild oxen are good grounds for believing in God’s glory, God’s action in Jesus’ life is the “sole ground,” Bonhoeffer says, in our hope of eternal life.

Interestingly, it was solid ground that the dove was seeking when Noah thought the forty long days of flooding and waiting was over. Solid ground was needed for a new beginning, a new life. And when the dove returned, descending with the olive branch, the people of God knew that the wait was over.

A new dove descends at Jesus’ baptism, and, likewise, a wait is over. Solid ground has risen up, and we may build. Baptized, ourselves, flooded with forgiveness, we may begin anew and build our lives on the sole ground God so long intended to give us. Brothers and sisters, we may build again—not with a faith too personal and private, but with a courage to be public and prophetic for the whole creation.

In Jesus, we behold God’s beloved Son, and we may build our lives in him. Again, and again…and again. And all the people in the temple shout, “Glory!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.