Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Sure Thing

A Sure Thing
2 Corinthians 5:1-5
            Paul uses metaphors to convey his message in the same way that Jesus used parables.  Jesus’ parables took complex concepts and framed them in a way that the common people could easily understand.  Speaking in terms of agriculture, the weather or other commonalities familiar to his listeners, Jesus made his message clear, and helped those who heard him (“Let the one who has ears, hear and understand!”) absorb the gospel and translate it into a message that would serve them well in their daily lives.
            Paul, writing and speaking mostly to Gentiles, uses figures of speech they would understand.  He speaks of races and other athletic contests.  He refers to our bodies as “jars of clay.”  He uses terms from legal language that would have been familiar to those who read and heard his letters.  He compares the church to the human body.
            We find one of these figures of speech in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth.  He has been speaking of the ultimate destruction of our jars of clay, the passing away of our human bodies.  He talks about the body as a tent, and says that we shouldn’t be concerned about this dwelling being destroyed.  We have a better piece of real estate waiting for us in the presence of God—a house that will be ours for all eternity. 
He assures his readers—which includes us, since we are also his readers—that this destruction of our physical bodies is necessary in order to inherit the imperishable dwelling that awaits us.  When “what is mortal” is “swallowed up by life,” we will be given clothing that will be better and more complete than the earthly tent we now inhabit.  He sort of mixes metaphors here, between tents and clothing, but the central idea is the same—we will inherit an eternal dwelling place.
How do we know this will come to pass?  Do we only have Paul’s word to rely on?  Isn’t that a little scary, even given that Paul is among Jesus’ faithful apostles, and one whose word can be trusted?
It turns out we don’t have to take Paul’s word that what awaits us after life ends is better than anything we have here—and he uses a real estate term to make his point.  The last phrase of today’s reading tells us that God “has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”
If you’ve ever bought a house you know that, in order to seal the deal, money has to change hands—not the full amount, but enough to constitute “earnest money.”  It’s the buyer’s way of telling the seller, “I’m serious about this.  Here’s a deposit to guarantee that I’ll go through with the purchase.  The deposit doesn’t have to be much (we’ve put down as little as $100 for some of the houses we’ve bought), just enough to say, “We intend to go through with the deal, and here’s money to show we’re serious.”
This is the “guarantee” of which Paul speaks.  God seals the deal with us by giving the Holy Spirit to work in and through us.    This is God’s way of saying, “I’m serious about this.  Accept the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in your life and I’ll guarantee that, when life is over, your real estate will be waiting for you.”
All we have to do to keep our side of the bargain is let the Holy Spirit live in us and transform us day by day into the people God would have us be.  Of course, our side of the bargain isn’t easy.  God requires that we be attentive to the Spirit’s voice and leading.  We can no longer be completely in charge of our lives because the Spirit leads us to follow God’s will rather than our own.

Still, you’re not going to find a better deal anywhere else.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Jars of Clay

Jars of Clay
2 Corinthians 4:7
            Jars of clay.  The most common container in biblical times.  Jars of clay were like plastic containers today:  they could be found everywhere.  These vessels could be used to hold all kinds of stuff—common, valuable, and, in some cases, invaluable. 
            It turns out that these jars of clay were also good for preservation.  In Egypt and other places some have been found that are thousands of years old.  The documents inside them have been perfectly preserved.  As long as the jar and the seal are unbroken, what was placed inside them all those centuries ago remains intact and in good condition.  Unfortunately, archaeologists have found more pieces of these vessels than intact ones, proving that they are not indestructible.
            Jeremiah speaks of a jar of clay—an earthenware vessel—in chapter 32.  God has told him to redeem a field from his near relative.  God uses that redemption of property to make the point that Judah will be redeemed from captivity.  In verse 14 God instructs Jeremiah to place the deed in an earthenware vessel for preservation.  This was common practice since there were no municipal buildings where legal transactions could be registered.  As long as the seal on the jar was not broken the deed remained valid.  It was proof that the field had indeed changed hands for the purchase price that had been set. 
            So a jar of clay, a common vessel made from dirt, became a symbol for the redemption of a nation from exile.  The container also became honorable because of the contents.  The most common vessel of the day was elevated to new importance because of what was inside.
            Paul knew this passage from Jeremiah, quite possibly by heart.  The writings of the prophets were part of his education.  He would have been intimately familiar with the Scripture, and also with the concept, for in the first century documents were still being preserved in jars of clay.  Perhaps he had this in mind when he wrote his second letter to the church at Corinth.
            “But we have this treasure in jars of clay,” Paul says, “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”  Paul has been talking about the gospel, specifically that God’s light has brought God’s glory to believers through the knowledge of Jesus Christ.  This is the treasure of which he speaks. 
The “jars of clay” refers to the weakness of the human body.  Like jars of clay, our bodies are not indestructible.  Paul understood this weakness—the limitations that are part of every human being—through the weakness of his own flesh.  Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” which he asked God to remove.  God’s response was, “No.  My strength is made perfect in weakness.” 
            Elsewhere, Paul also demonstrated that he understood the emotional and spiritual weaknesses of his “jar of clay.”  He realized that he did not do the good things he wanted to do, but instead did things he did not want to do because of his human limitations.  Only through God’s power could he hope to accomplish anything of value.
            Like Paul, we are jars of clay.  We have physical weaknesses, the limitations of bodies that are imperfect and subject to decay.  We can’t escape these weaknesses.  We can only learn to live with them.  Still, this is not the worst of our limitations.  Our jars of clay are also subject to spiritual weakness.  We cannot live as we know we should because our spiritual weakness prevents it.

            But thanks be to God, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work within us that transforms our jars of clay into vessels of honor.  God does not transform our outer bodies, but instead changes our inner selves to become containers of God’s glory.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Why God Isn't Like Santa Claus

Why God Isn’t Like Santa Claus
Psalm 139:1-12
You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping…
You know the rest.
            That’s Santa Claus.  We’ve made him such an important part of growing up that we can’t escape him.  I know, you probably think it’s too soon to be writing about Christmas.  It’s bad enough that the stores are already full of ornaments, and lights, and angel statues, and all the other trimmings, but merchants can’t be blamed completely for rushing the season.  After all, we’ve made the Friday after Thanksgiving the most important shopping day of the year.  It’s inevitable that every store should want to entice us in to that establishment where (it is hoped) we’ll spend all our money.
In the first twelve verses of Psalm 139 it’s difficult to know whether the writer is talking about God or the Santa Claus we use to keep our children (fairly) well-behaved at this time of year.  The psalmist knows that he can never escape God’s presence.  No matter what he does, no matter where he goes, God is always there.  God sees everything, knows everything about him—about us.  There’s no escaping God’s presence
He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake,
He knows when you’ve been good or bad, so be good for goodness’ sake.

These words could apply to either God or Santa.  We teach our children that Santa sees everything we do and writes it down in his little book, so he knows whether or not he should be good to us on Christmas Eve.  Is it any wonder that children get God and Santa confused—just as many adults do?  Both God and Santa seem to be closely watching each little thing we do.  If we’re good, we’ve got it made.  If we make a slip—watch out!
            David McCasland has said, “God has both an all-seeing eye and an all-forgiving heart.”  That’s the difference between the two “watchers.” 
We portray Santa Claus as the great judge.  If you get on his bad side, it’s all over!  Coal in your stocking come Christmas morn.  Of course, we know that God is the righteous judge, and that the day will come when each of us will have to stand at God’s judgment seat and answer for the way we’ve lived our lives.  It’s also true that we have a tendency to emphasize God’s all-seeing eye over God’s all-forgiving heart.  This is a weakness in our theology, and we need to correct it.  We can’t speak about God’s all-seeing eye unless we equally stress God’s all-forgiving heart.
            John Baillie begins one of the prayers in his book, A Diary of Private Prayer, with these words:  “O merciful Father, who dost look down upon the weaknesses of Thy human children more in pity than in anger, and more in love than in pity…”  God’s pity for our foolishness far outweighs God’s anger at our sinfulness, and God’s love for us far outweighs God’s pity.  After all, this is the God who sent Jesus Christ to show us how we should live and how we should die, and to give us a path to life everlasting. 

            Santa Claus can’t do that.  He can’t forgive us the wrong things we do, or the right things we fail to do.  He can only keep score, and decide which list we should be on as he packs his sleigh.  It’s God who, seeing all that we do, no matter how bad, no matter how often, stands ready with open arms and forgiving heart to welcome us back home.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Presence of the Poor

The Presence of the Poor
Deuteronomy 15:1-6
Matthew 26:6-13
            There are times, I think, when we get God’s commands and God’s statements of facts mixed up.  We take statements of fact as commands and commands as statements of facts.  Today’s readings are a good example of that confusion.
            “Deuteronomy” means “the second giving of the law.”  God gave the law (the Ten Commandments) in Exodus.  They are restated in Deuteronomy along with detailed instructions as to how those laws were to be implemented.  In a way, this is like the United States government.  Congress passes a law (yes, it happens sometimes), the president signs it, and then it’s turned over to the appropriate government agencies for interpretation and the writing of regulations.  It is through these regulations that most laws are actually implemented.
            The fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy begins by explaining the Year of Release.  Every seven years all debts were to be forgiven—completely cleared.  This is not a suggestion, this is God’s commandment.  Every seven years the Israelites were to start over—debt free, with no residual financial obligations.  All outstanding debts were to be cancelled.  That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?  There’s no room for “interpretation” here.  Every person gets a fresh start.
            In v. 4 God says, “…there will be no poor among you;…”  This is not a statement of fact.  It’s the law—God’s law.  There will be no poor because every person gets a fresh startAll debts are forgiven.
            Can you imagine this working in our society?  Can you see banks forgiving mortgages? Car loans?  Credit card debts?  We have gotten so dependent upon credit, so immersed in living for the future that such a system would seem to be totally unworkable.  Yet this is God’s law—for the Israelites, yes; but doesn’t God’s law apply to us as well?  What about those who insist that every word of the Bible is absolutely true and given directly by God?  Would they go so far as to live this way?  Would they argue that all society should work this way?  Perhaps it’s is unrealistic, but perhaps it is something we should be working towards.
            In the Matthew reading, a woman has just poured the contents of a flask of very expensive ointment on Jesus’ head.  The deed has upset some of Jesus’ disciples.  They are appalled that this woman has wasted a precious commodity this way.  “Why didn’t she give the money to the poor?” they said.  “It would have gone a long way toward helping those who need it most.”
            Jesus replied (in part), “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”  It’s the first part of this answer that causes trouble.  Too many people interpret this as having the effect of a command—or at least the fatalistic statement of a situation that cannot be changed.  I do not believe this is what Jesus meant.  He realized that people were unwilling to help the poor in any meaningful way—any way that would offer a real solution to the problem.  To the best of our knowledge, Israel never instituted the Year of Release.  No one was willing to forgive debts on such a grand scale even though  God had said, “for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God.”

            There it is!  It’s not our land.  It’s not our money.  All good gifts have been given to us by God.  If we strictly obey the voice of God, there will be no poor among us, and all will prosper.  This is God’s command to us, and the way God expects us to live.