Sunday, January 27, 2013

Who Is the Man?

Who Is “The Man?”
John 18-19
2 Samuel 11:1-12:15
People love to say, “You’re the man!” or its colloquial version, “You da man!”  The idea behind this is celebrating some (usually male) person who has done—or is capable of doing—something extraordinary, some feat of prowess that sets him apart from his fellows and makes him special.  Many times it’s said in jest, a friendly mocking of someone we care about but want to tease a little.  Often it’s said in realization of something so stupendous that we can think of nothing else to say.
There are two interesting usages of this phrase (or something like it) in the Bible.  They present different interpretations of the saying, and at the same time tell us something about ourselves.  Two rather long Scripture passages will help us see the two contrasting sides.
David should have gone to war with his troops.  It was the king’s responsibility to lead them into battle, but for some reason, this time he stayed at home.  Because he was not where he should have been, he got into trouble.  Walking on his rooftop one day, he saw a beautiful woman bathing.  Even though she was married to another man, David had Bathsheba brought to the palace and slept with her.  She became pregnant.  In order to cover up his first sin, David had her husband killed, then married her.
God sent the prophet Nathan to challenge David.  Even kings have to listen when God’s messenger speaks.  Nathan told David a parable in which a rich man took a sheep from a poor man to serve his guests for supper.  David became outraged and asked, “Who is this evil person?  Tell me that I may punish him!”  Nathan replied, “You are the man!”
We can only guess at David’s mortification and humiliation when he was confronted with his sin, but there was no easy way out for him.  He had sinned, and God would hold him accountable.  David would be punished, but because of God’s promise to make his descendants a royal line forever, God would allow him to live.
Fast forward several hundred years.  Jesus has come to earth, fulfilling the prophecies of a Messiah and also God’s promise to David.  One has been born of David’s line who will save his people from the sin which has corrupted them.  He lives quietly for most of his life, then, at about age thirty, he begins a three-year ministry.  This ministry attracts a lot of attention, good and bad.  The people love him, but the religious rulers hate him because he exposes their self-serving interpretation of God’s law.  Finally, on trumped-up charges, these leaders have him arrested and arrange for him to be put to death by the cruelest method their Roman allies can devise.
See him hanging on the cross.  Hear him as he forgives those who put him there.  Hear him finally give up the ghost and die.  Hear someone standing at the foot of the cross say, “Behold the Man!”
We know that Jesus died that we might have abundant life.  We know it was our sin that put him on that cross.  We know God could have easily said to each of us, “You are the man!” and held us responsible for our sin.  God could have exacted the death penalty from us.  But that was not God’s plan.  God had long before determined that we would be redeemed. 
Today God says to us, “Behold the Man—the One I sent to restore you to me.  See him as he hangs on that cross.  Hear him as he forgives you for putting him there.  Behold him, the Man of Sorrows, your Savior, my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Sunday, January 20, 2013

There Are More of Us than of Them

There Are More of Us than of Them
Isaiah 2:1-5
            The National Rifle Association claims 4.2 million members.  The most powerful lobbying group in the United States says it speaks with one voice for all of its members—a claim no organization can make with total assurance.  Its leadership says Congress doesn’t “have the muscle” to pass an assault weapons ban.  Translation:  “So many congressmen are in our pocket that the other side doesn’t have the votes.  And those we control won’t break ranks because they know we’ll take them down the next time they’re up for re-election.”
            There’s a memorable scene in the movie The Power of One.  A black prisoner in a South African jail tells his Afrikaner jailer what the other prisoners are singing about.  They are saying that the jailers are afraid of the prisoners.  For his honesty he is beaten to death.  But he has one moment of triumph.  He knows, as he suffers the death-dealing blows, that what he says is true.
            I believe the National Rifle Association is facing much the same situation.  They are afraid.  They have 4.2 million members.  The population of the United States at last count is 315,156,599.  You do the math.  There are more of us than there are of them.
            The NRA is afraid that if there is ever one chink in their armor, their whole wall will come tumbling down.  This is a familiar argument.  We hear it every time there is the possibility of great change.  Those opposing the civil rights movement were sure their whole way of life would be destroyed if legislation passed assuring minorities of their rights.  Those opposing women’s rights were sure that if legislation were passed assuring equal rights for females it would mean women in combat roles and single-sex bathrooms.  Those opposing gay rights and gays in the military are sure that the whole fabric of civilization will be irreparably torn if those measures go into effect.
            Any time a group tries to claim its rights, the opposition is sure it will mean the end of life as they know it.  Witness Syria. Witness the Arab spring.  Witness (on a much smaller scale) free agency in sports.  Freedom is never won easily, nor are rights won without a struggle.
            Please do not misunderstand me.  I am not anti-gun.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  I believe hunting and target shooting are worthwhile activities even though I do not participate in either.  These were the principles on which the NRA was founded over 100 years ago.  Gun safety was stressed.  Sport shooting was stressed.  This situation continued until the 1950’s when a group, fearing the loss of a right they could never lose, hijacked the NRA and turned it into the powerful, reactionary force we see today.
            Perhaps we’ll never see the future Isaiah envisioned—not in our lifetime, not in this world.  Perhaps this vision will only be realized when Christ has come again and God has established the New Jerusalem here on earth.  But wouldn’t it be a good start if we could get guns out of the hands of those who use them to kill innocent children?  Wouldn’t it be a good first step to limit access to weapons no hunter or sportsman could ever have a use for?  I’ve never heard of anyone hunting ducks, or geese, or deer with an assault rifle.  Seems like overkill to me.  And target shooting would, I think, not be as much of a challenge with one. 
Yes, I know:  guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  But it’s undeniable that people with guns kill more people and kill them more efficiently than any other way.
            Several years ago, the NRA ran an ad campaign that featured various members saying, “I’m the NRA, and I vote.”  Perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to start a similar campaign:  “I’m not  the NRA, and I vote—and there are more of us than there are of them.”

An Old-Fashioned Prophet

An Old-Fashioned Prophet
Luke 3:7-18
            How we long to go back to the time when everything was wonderful!  Families all had two parents (one of each gender), 2.3 children (evenly balanced between genders), a home on a sunny/shady street with just the right number of rooms, a perfect lawn, and a two-car garage.  Father had a job with a good, steady income, and mother was home all day to take care of the kids.  Everyone went to church on Sunday, and everyone watched the same (wholesome) TV programs.  Life was perfect—just like on those wholesome TV programs.  Why can’t we still be like that?
            The truth, of course, is that few of us ever were.  We like to think everything was perfect “back then,” but for most people it never was.  There were wars, poverty, crime, disease, broken homes—most of the same problems we have today.  The difference is that “back then” we could keep them at arm’s length.  We didn’t have to be reminded of troubles so frequently or so vividly.  Those problems were “out there,” or “over there,” not in the leafy suburbs or small towns where everyone lived.
            Judah remembered such a time in her past as inaccurately as we remember our gold-plated one.  There was a time when Israel seemed to be a major player in the Middle East.  The time was short-lived (David, Solomon), and was never as wonderful as the people remembered, but it was something for them to hold on to.  As we look in our rose-colored rear view mirrors, so they looked back on a time where all was perfect.
            Now Rome ruled, and kept corrupt and unjust kings in power.  The religious leaders were in cahoots with the Romans, and everyone outside of the ruling class felt oppressed and under someone’s thumb.  Oh, how the people longed for the good old days!
            Then came a man who defied every description of a leader they had ever imagined.  He wore weird clothing, ate strange foods, and said disturbing things.  He called his listeners a “brood of vipers,” and told them they were sinners.  He said they’d better repent, change their ways, and begin to care for those who were less fortunate—the way God had meant Israel to do from the beginning.
            “Perhaps,” the people thought, “this is the way to get back to the good old days.  Maybe if we do what he says Judah will become great once more, and Rome will disappear, and our evil rulers will disappear, and our oppressive religious leaders will disappear.  Maybe everything will be wonderful again, as it was before.”
            But John was not calling them backward into some mis-remembered, golden-haloed past.  He was urging them forward into a bright new future, a future that demanded—and depended upon—changed lives.  No longer would they be able to take refuge in restructured memories.  They would have to come to grips with the problems they had kept at arm’s length—the ones they had consigned to reaches of their memories so far removed from consciousness they could not even call them to mind.
            “Repent,” John said.  “Change your ways.  Follow the law as God meant you to, not the easy, self-absorbed way you have for the vast majority of your history.  And do it soon!  For One is coming who will not just call you to repentance, but will sift the good from the bad.  The good fruit will be gathered into his barn, and the chaff will be destroyed—now and for eternity.”
            John’s message is no less meaningful today.  God calls us to put away our half-true memories of past glories and look to an even more glorious future, one in which all of us can share, one in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What Happened on that Mountain?

What Happened on that Mountain?
Mark 9:2-13
            The transfiguration is a great story, but it’s a little confusing.  What’s the point?  Why does Jesus include the disciples?  What is their function?  Oh, I know, they were witnesses, but to what purpose?  Did Jesus bring them along to prove his divinity?  Shortly before this (Mark 8:27-30), Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Christ—the Messiah.  This confession came after the disciples had witnessed healing miracles and other demonstrations of his power—power unlike anyone who had appeared before.  What further proof did they need of his divinity?
            I’m not sure I can answer any of these questions, but they nag at me.  Like many people, I want to understand as much of the Bible as possible.  I know I’ll never understand it all—not in this lifetime; but I want to comprehend as much as the limits of my mind will allow.
Please don’t misunderstand.  I don’t want to challenge the biblical record.  While I am by no means a biblical literalist, I believe there has to be something behind these stories.  I know the Bible contains many confusing and even contradictory passages, but it is the record of God’s interaction with humankind, and at its heart is truth.  Something happened on that mountain, and three human beings were witnesses to it.  I want to try to understand what happened and why it happened.
Nor do I want to explain it away.  There are many who try to come up with a logical explanation for all of the Bible’s illogical passages.  They try to explain in human terms how something extraordinarily superhuman could have happened.  That’s not me.  I accept that God can do whatever God wants to do.  As C. S. Lewis said, Jesus Christ was exactly who he said he was (the Son of God), or he was a madman or a charlatan.  There’s no middle ground here.  Jesus either healed people or the gospels are a complete lie.  Jesus was transfigured on that mountain and talked with Moses and Elijah, or somehow, through some illusion, the three disciples were tricked into believing that’s what they saw—or they outright lied to enhance the reputation of their master.
Having said all this, what can we take away from this story?  What message does it have for us?  Those of us who call ourselves Christians accept Jesus’ divinity.  We don’t need more proof.  My main question is: why the witnesses?  Jesus could have begged off from his teaching and healing to be on his own if he needed to commune with his predecessors—or could he?  If he had gone off by himself, wouldn’t the people have followed him—at least some of them?  In previous chapters Mark tells us how they chased Jesus around Galilee.  Perhaps taking the three disciples with him protected him from having others follow, both his supporters and the crowds that always gathered round him.
But what did Jesus want Peter, James and John to see?  We are told by people who study the Bible that this occurrence connected Jesus to the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah), the two great strains of Jewish religious history.  Was this it?  Did God want to give Jesus complete legitimacy in the eyes of his followers?  “This is my Son.  He not only has my backing, but he is in direct line with the great teachings of Israel’s past.  Listen to what he says.”  Then why did Jesus tell them to keep it to themselves until after his resurrection? 
Perhaps this was not for the disciples at all.  Perhaps this was for future generations, who would not have the opportunity to experience Jesus in the flesh and come under the direct power of his teaching.  Perhaps God was saying to us:  “This is my beloved Son.  Although he stands in the long line of Jewish tradition, he is One who is more than anyone I’ve sent before.  Hear what he has to say.  Listen, and follow him.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Gospel According to Willie Sutton

The Gospel According to Willie Sutton
Mark 2:13-17
            This is how Wikipedia describes Willie Sutton.
            William “Willie” Sutton (1901-1980) was a prolific U. S. bank robber.  During his forty-year criminal career he stole an estimated $2 million, and eventually spent more than half his adult life in prison.  For his talent at executing robberies in disguises, he gained two nicknames:  “Willie the Actor,” and “Slick Willie.”
 There is an urban legend connected with Sutton.  When someone asked him why he robbed banks, he is supposed to have said, “Because that’s where the money is.”  Apparently he never said it, but it has become so attached to his name that he might as well have.  As long as the name Willie Sutton exists in anyone’s memory, he will be associated with that statement.
The incident may not be true, and perhaps neither Sutton nor anyone else ever said it, but it does make sense.  It would be foolish to go to all the trouble of planning and executing a robbery of some place that had no money.  Smart criminals (if there is such a thing) steal from people and places where they know they will make the greatest return on their investment.
So what does this have to do with the gospel?  Sutton’s (supposed) statement is similar to what Jesus said in answer to a question the Pharisees asked his disciples. 
The story begins with Jesus calling Levi (Matthew) to be his disciple.  In Mark’s version, Jesus has called the four fishermen (Simon, Andrew, James and John) but no one else.  Walking by Levi’s tax collecting spot, Jesus turned to him and said, “Follow me.”  Mark tells us, “And he rose and followed him.”  No hesitation, no stopping to think, just an immediate reaction.
Very much like the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus goes to Levi’s house to share a meal.  Remember, eating together is one of the most intimate encounters between people in the Middle East, even today.  One of the obstacles to peace in the region is that enemies will not sit at table with each other.  Remember the words of the twenty-third psalm:  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  God feeds the psalmist in the presence of his enemies, but not in their company.  Even God may have trouble pulling that off.
When Jesus shares a meal with “many tax collectors and sinners” (notice how the two groups are linked together), the Pharisees are appalled.  Doesn’t Jesus know with whom he is sharing food?  Is he so blind that he can’t recognize the low moral level of these people?  Has he no scruples, no honor, no common sense—no righteous indignation at the undesirability of his dinner companions?
Not wanting to challenge Jesus himself (they always lost these encounters), the Pharisees ask his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  Jesus, overhearing their question, responds.  “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Like Willie Sutton, choosing to rob places where the money was, Jesus chose to go where the sinners were.  We know those who consider themselves righteous have problems of their own.  Jesus knew that too.  He frequently spoke out about the self-righteousness of the religious leaders of his day—as he holds us accountable for our own self-righteousness.  But he knew where his mission lay.  He came to call sinners to repentance.  Where else would he go but where sinners would be found?  Where should God find Christians serving today?