Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter- what does it mean? and did it happen?

Today I want to look at two questions. 
1. What does the death and resurrection of Jesus mean? 
2. And did the death and resurrection of Jesus actually happen?

‘Atonement’ has been the word used to describe what happened on the cross. The word “atonement” means to bring two things into unity- “At-one-ment”. We are told that what happened on the cross brought what was divided (God and humanity), into unity.

There are a variety of ways to understand the Atonement. I also want to start by reminding you of what C. S. Lewis has said about the atonement- That understanding how it works is less important than understanding that it works. He says it is like nutrition. People were eating food and drinking long before there were any theories of how the body broke down food to nourish cells. When you are hungry it is enough to eat, and it works. Jesus’ work on the cross is like this. We don’t have to dedicate ourselves to one particular theory about how this works. What we are assured of in Scripture and by the experience of the Church is that it does work.

That being said, the many ways of understanding the Atonement fall into three basic categories that answer the question “where was the work of Christ on the cross directed?” Was it directed to human beings? Was it directed to God? Or was it directed to Evil?

First, we’ll consider the view that Jesus’ actions on the cross were directed towards humanity. Throughout the Bible Sin is described as a kind of sickness. In the Old Testament we read that over and over again the people wander off the path set for them. As they walk away from the safety of God’s path they encounter all kinds of suffering and corruption. The work of Jesus on the cross resulted in healing humanity, providing an example for them to follow, and expressing God’s amazing and unending love that draws alienated humanity back to Himself. The actions of Christ heals the relationship between human beings and God, by healing the sin that separates us. The lifeblood of the God-Man has been offered to heal our sin sick souls. And the cross is a beacon of love- showing us the profound lengths God is willing to go in order to show His love for us, and by the power of his resurrection, He empowers us to imitate his never ending and inexhaustible love. By drawing us to himself, the great Physician, we are drawn into a relationship of ongoing healing.

The second view of the atonement is the cross as directed towards God. Viewed this way the actions of Jesus can be seen as the actions of a representative or a substitute for humanity that stands before a profoundly mysterious and holy God that is unable to have the corruption of sin in His presence. We see this view in the Old Testament sacrifices. Jesus pays a debt we owe God, or receives a punishment we deserve as a part of offending a very holy justice. This is the basic idea: Humanity’s sin is basically the failure to give God what He deserves. It is the responsibility of humanity to give God what is owed Him, as well as the necessary back payment for what we have robbed him of. As a good judge, God’s justice demands this restoration. For God to overlook this would make God a bad judge- to be without a sense of justice. The problem is that humanity us unable to repay this debt. Even if we stopped sinning entirely we would only be giving God what we owe Him already. The debt could not be paid down. And we continue to sin continuing to build a greater debt to God each time we deny God what we owe Him, which is our complete and utter love and service. God is left with two options- punish humanity as they deserve, or accept payment on their behalf. The tricky bit is that only a human being can make the payment because it is humanity that owes the debt. No human is able to make this kind of payment on behalf of humanity. The solution is found in Jesus Christ, who is both God and human. As a human being he belongs to humanity who needs to make payment. As God, he has resources to make the payment.

This one can be a bit hard for us to stomach because the idea of the bloody sacrifice of a life is very strange to us, but I want to also remind us that it is most likely because of the influence of Christianity that we feel this way. Throughout most of human history sacrifice has been a regular part of human life in cultures all over the world. The teaching of Christianity was that Christ was the last sacrifice needed and so in Christianity sacrifice stopped. That gives us the privilege to feel strange about sacrifice.

The third way to view the atonement is as directed towards the Evil powers. In this view the work of Christ on the cross is about going to battle on our behalf to destroy the powers of Evil and rescue humanity that has been captured and oppressed. This is the view of the atonement that dominated the church for the first 1000 years. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus God defeated the devil and the power that enslave humanity. Jesus goes to battle on our behalf. He confronts the supernatural invisible evils- the Devil, demons, and evil spirits. He confronts the evil powers of this world that manifest in the form of corrupt social structures and economic systems that take advantage of people and create injustice and cruelty, and marginalize people to outskirts of society saying there is no place for them. And Jesus also confronts the Power of Sin that enslaves us and makes us something like addicts, slowly taking away our free will that allows us to choose to do good, or to even want to choose good. The ministry of Jesus is about releasing us from these powers. From the unseen demonic powers, from the systemic evil of cultures that oppresses people, and from the power of Sin that lives within us. [world, the flesh, devil]

In this view of the atonement, what we see in the gospels is Jesus rescuing people from the kingdom of darkness and bringing them into the kingdom of God. Jesus saves us from the power of Evil, and the inevitable destruction that is coming to the kingdom of darkness and sin. Being freed from that evil empire we are freed from the inability to live in right relationship with God, and we become free to participate in all the joy and abundance that comes with life in the eternal kingdom of God.

We, by our sin, have placed ourselves under the power of Evil, which means a life subject to sin, fear, and death. But, God will not leave us enslaved to Evil and comes to us as Jesus. Jesus offers himself to these powers in exchange for humanity. [Aslan- Edmund] They think they can destroy him. But the power of the sinless and divine Christ bursts from the clutches of evil and death. His humanity was the tempting bait that drew the evil power to destroy him, but his holy divinity and his self-sacrificial love was the hook that snagged the devil and defeated him. The devil’s plan backfired. When Christ snuck behind enemy lines he rescued humanity from the clutches of death. Having entered the kingdom of God we have a new power working in us calling us to act out of the kind of self-sacrificial love we see in Christ. In this way God’s army expands and transforms the world with the power of His love.

All of these are scriptural. To some degree we are probably trying to understand something that is deeper than our minds can handle. But of course all of this is just fairy tales if Jesus wasn’t who he said he was and wasn’t actually bodily resurrected. And that brings me to the second question I wanted to deal with. We have been looking at the question, “What does the death and resurrection of Jesus mean”, but now I want us to look at the question “Did the death and resurrection happen?”

Believing is hard- especially when we are talking about a miracle like the resurrection of Jesus. We want to see it in order to believe it. We are able to doubt anything. Our powers of doubt know no bounds. ... Maybe this is all just a dream- like in The Matrix. If we take it to the extreme, everyday reality itself is doubtable. A life filled with this kind of doubt is a hard life to live. The bridge could collapse. The elevator might get stuck. Your spouse might be cheating on you.

It is hard for us to believe the resurrection because we have a materialist worldview that refuses to believe in anything unless it can be repeatedly tested, videotaped, and dissected. [materialist- not obsessed with money- but what you see is what you get] We want to be able to put it in a test tube. If we can probe an issue in these ways, then we might believe it. I know people who don’t believe in the resurrection simply because they have decided that miracles just don’t happen.

But history isn’t really something you can put in a test tube. History is primarily about trusting the words of those we never knew. There are some principles to follow to figure out if something is believable or not. There are ways history decides it can trust something someone wrote. We are being asked to believe the witness of the original disciples. We live in a world where we don’t really even trust each other. People hallucinate. People lie. People make mistakes. But this is a question for history in general. How can we trust what someone has said or written about past events and people? How do we know about Napoleon, or Nero, or Henry the 8th? It can be tricky to think our way through all this.

As Christians we don’t want to be na├»ve. God has told us to love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We are not to believe everything that comes our way. However, we are not to outright reject everything either- that is just cynicism. We are to be discerning. We are to be like sharp swords carefully and skillfully separating truth from falsehood.

We can know London is a city in England by actually going there, but we can also choose to believe those who have gone to London and have come back to tell us about it. ... We are asked to trust the words of those who experienced the risen Jesus Christ. Do we trust their story?

Is their story believable? We don’t have a lot of time, but I want to suggest that there are good reasons to believe their story. There are 4 facts that historians agree on. First, Jesus was truly dead- he was killed by the hands of the Romans, who were very good at killing. Second, His tomb was found to be empty- some disagree about how it got that way, but it is a fact that the body of Jesus was gone. Third, numerous people reported seeing the resurrected Jesus. Followers and even enemies- individuals and groups, reported seeing him. About 20 years after Jesus' death, Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15) "[Jesus] appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” The early disciples believed that they had experienced the risen Jesus in a very physical way and they became willing to die for their belief that Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead. ... Many of them did die for their belief. Fourth, The early Jesus followers were strengthened. They went from a group of scared disciples huddled behind locked doors to proclaiming Jesus in the temple and across the known world. This just didn't happen with these kinds of groups when their leader was killed. Usually they scattered and the movement died. ... I believe, the best explanation for all these facts coexisting is the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus (unless of course you are just going to decide miracles don’t happen).

Most of you don't need these kinds of facts to know he has been raised. You probably don’t believe because of the historical case for the resurrection. Most of you haven’t become Christians because it makes sense to your intellect. You believe the stories because you feel you have encountered Christ. You have encountered Jesus through the stories. You have felt his presence. You have felt his peace and his love. You have felt his forgiveness. You have experienced his transformation.

We don’t always have all the proof we want. We cannot reach out and touch God with our microscopes and telescopes. We can't measure God with a thermometer. Doubt, for most of us will just be a part of what it means to be human. ... This does not leave us hopeless. We are invited to trust the stories of those who did encounter him, and open ourselves to encountering him now. Amen.

What does Easter mean? Atonement- At-one-ment

1. Directed to humanity- healing sin, drawing us with love, giving us an example to imitate

2. Directed to God- Paying a debt we owe, or a punishment we deserve

3. Directed to evil- Defeating the “world”, the flesh, and the Devil- Rescuing us from the kingdom of darkness and bringing us to the kingdom of God

Is the resurrection believable?

1. Jesus really died

2. His tomb was found empty

3. Numerous people reported experiencing a resurrected Jesus (1 Cor 15)

4. Jesus’ followers became bold and were strengthened

Good Friday and Jesus becoming a nobody

            TGIF- Thank God it’s Friday. That’s what most people are saying today. To many people “Good” Friday is “good” because it begins a long weekend. So what are we strange people doing here? (…) As an Anglican we save the hopeful stuff for Saturday night and Sunday. So today is dark. We gather with the disciples who have prepared the body of Jesus and we place him in the tomb. We are here for a funeral. And like a funeral we gather to support one another in our grief. We are here to remember a death. Our Lord, our teacher, and our friend has been crucified. …. But, that in itself is not extraordinary. There are plenty of people who have been crucified.
          There was a slave rebellion between 73 and 71 BC called the Third Servile War. About 120,000 rebel slaves were led by a man named Spartacus in revolt against the Roman republic. This led to about 6000 of his followers being crucified along the 200km stretch of road between Capua and Rome as a warning to those who would oppose Rome’s power. (Just to help you visualize that, if you drove from Olds to Edmonton that is just over 200km … Imagine every telephone pole is a crucified slave).  
            Josephus tells us that after the death of King Herod in 4BC there were revolts which were put down by Rome. This led to the crucifixion of two thousand. This was another warning to those who would oppose Rome’s power.
          Judas the Galilean led a revolt in the year 6 AD over the issue of taxes to Rome. Judas’ three sons were crucified. Yet, another warning against opposing Rome.
          Josephus also tells us that during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD many were crucified before the walls of Jerusalem to terrorize those inside- to get them to surrender the city. Josephus says that they crucified 500 people a day until they ran out of wood for making crosses. The message is clear: Do not oppose the power of Rome. 
          Most of these people we don’t have names for. They join the masses of people throughout the ages that have come up against the powers of this world and lost. They join those in unmarked mass graves. They join the masses who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis, and under the reigns of Pol Pot and Stalin and the many others throughout the centuries that have terrorized humanity.
          We gather today to remember one of these deaths. To the powers of the day, he was a nobody. It was expected that he would disappear into the nameless grave the way so many others have before him.
          Pontius Pilate is responsible for imposing the Pax Romana- the Roman Peace. This is a peace enforced by a very large stick. Pilate is responsible for imposing the Roman Peace on what he saw as a barbarous population that was often given to religious fanaticism in the region of Palestine.
          As Jesus stands before Pilate he sees before him a poor and possibly demented man. When asked questions he gives vague and mysterious answers. In the Roman worldview of the day there was a hierarchy of persons. From the highest gods to the lowest slave.  Pilate is a bit nearer to the heavens. He has the powers of Rome flowing through his will. In Pilate’s worldview, Jesus is in a particularly low place. Jesus has no claim on Pilate’s mercy. He can’t claim any rights or freedoms that are owed him. Pilate has complete sway over his life or death.   
          Jesus is scourged and mockingly dressed in a cloak with a crown of thorns pressed into his scalp by bored soldiers. He stands before Pilate having been humiliated and then receives the news that he is to be crucified. …     The theologian and historian David Bentley Hart says that, “[in the order of the ancient world] Pilate’s verdict is essentially a just one: Not because the penalty it imposes is somehow proportionate to the “crime”, but because it affirms the natural and divine order of reality, by consigning a worthless man to an appropriately undignified death, and by restoring order through the destruction of the agent of disorder. For, in the end, the gods love order above all else”.
          … In the second chapter of Philippians Paul quotes an ancient hymn of the early church:
6[Christ] Who, being in very nature God,
      did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
 7but made himself nothing,
      taking the very nature of a servant,
      being made in human likeness.
 8And being found in appearance as a man,
      he humbled himself
      and became obedient to death—
         even death on a cross!                    

          We are told that God became human, but not an emperor or a king- a child born to a young unwed woman and laid in an animal’s feeding trough. He was born into poverty. God was born into a family that would have disappeared into the mists of time with many other unnamed and forgotten families. God became one of the nameless ones. God became one of the petals resting on the surface of the water powerless against the waves and ripples. He became one of the powerless people. Jesus stands before Pilate, a representative of the greatest power of the day- the Roman Empire.
His cry will be the cry of the abandoned and rejected nobodies of the world- “My God, why have you forsaken me”. God, in His humanity, will feel abandoned by himself. His cry is Job’s cry- “My God, why have you forsaken me”. It is a particularly human kind of suffering. We can suffer all kinds of physical and mental pain if we feel God is with us- that there is hope- that our suffering isn’t pointless. But to feel abandoned by God is to feel a kind of suffering that is hopeless and meaningless.  
           Not only did Jesus become one of the nobodies, he also took on those parts of us that we don’t want to let into the light. The dark, selfish, slithering, hissing, corrupted parts of us. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he says, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).        
          Jesus came to us as one of the powerless. He emptied himself that he could be filled with our violence and corruption. If Christ was to absorb the evil and corrupt powers that influence this world, he could not be a bearer of those powers. It would not do to be an emperor. As soon as he plays on their terms, with their powers of violence, then he has lost. Jesus is to have those powers used against him- to be a recipient the way that the majority of humankind has been. He joins the nameless and faceless masses to endure the powers of sin and death that have been oppressing them since before anyone can remember. 
          Jigoro Kano was the founder of Judo and it has been said that wrestling him was like wrestling an empty jacket. He just went with whatever force was being used on him. If you wanted to push him, he could use that force. If you wanted to pull him, well, he can use that force too. He would just go with it, absorb it, and use it to his advantage.  Whatever evil wanted to throw at Jesus, he was willing to take it, transform it, and use it. … But he didn’t use it to his own advantage, he used it to our advantage.    
          This is what theologians normally call the “atonement”. There are many theories about how this works, but the thing that matters most is not the theory. C.S. Lewis says that people were eating and digesting food quite well before theories of nutrition and digestion came about. What matters is eating food, not understanding the theory of nutrition. Eating food will keep you alive, the theory will not. The important thing is that Christ died for us- and that makes this a Good Friday. The important thing is that what Jesus did was “atonement”. Christ’s work on the cross brings us to a state of at-one-ment with God.

          It is good to attempt to understand this, but what is more important is that we are overwhelmed with gratitude for what God has done for us through the cross of Jesus Christ- forgiving our sin and clearing the way between us and God.  Thank God it’s Friday. 

Sunday, 20 March 2016

We want a hero- Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday

I have to admit that I love superheroes. When I was a kid I collected comics. I watched superhero TV shows and movies. I played superhero videogames. I had superhero toys. … You may have noticed that superheroes seem to be everywhere now. Every few months a new superhero movie comes out and the toy stores are always in sync with the latest movie.

When I was a kid I loved superman. I used to pretend I was Clark Kent. I had a pair of sunglasses with the lenses popped out that I would wear around town when my mom had to run errands. I had a little briefcase I carried around that had a towel I could tie into a cape, and a pair of underwear I could pull on over my pants for when I had to transform into superman.

Superman looks human. He looks so human he can be overlooked and ignored as Clark. But he is more than human. He can lift trains over his head. He can shoot lasers out of his eyes. He can freeze with his breath. He’s bulletproof. And, he can fly. He is a powerful force for the cause of good in a world filled with evil focused on destruction and chaos.

Every generation has stories about superhuman heroes. We long for someone we can believe in. We long for someone who has the power to stop the forces of evil all around us. Superheroes aren’t ordinary people because we know that it takes someone more. We want someone who can fly, read minds, shoot electricity from their fingertips, and see into the future. We want someone who can’t be stopped by a bullet or a tank. We want someone who has indestructible integrity, and whose loyalty can't be bought. We want someone indestructible- morally and physically. We want someone with power to stop evil and protect the innocent. We want superman to fly in and vaporize the Tsunami before it hits the villages. We want him to walk into the headquarters of ISIS as bullet bounce off him and fly off with their leader. We live in a very broken world. We want a superhero because we know that the evils in the world are stronger than we are.

The people of first century Israel wanted a superhero. They wanted someone who would act through brute force to destroy the super villains of the day- Caesar and his cronies, the Roman soldiers. They wanted their superhero to take over and set up an ideal earthly kingdom. All the bullies would be kicked out of Israel. All corruption would be destroyed- peace and justice would fill the land. By the first century they had been expecting him for centuries. Their own prophets foretold that he would arrive, and the people were living in a constant and desperate state of expectation.

Their word for this superhero was "messiah". He is empowered by God's strength. He is unstoppable, and he is good. In our Gospel reading (Luke 19:28-40) Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and is welcomed as this long expected superhero. Jesus makes a bold statement that he is, in fact, this expected hero by purposefully fulfilling the prophecy that the expected hero would come riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9).

The people welcome him as their king, waving palm branches and placing them on the road along with their cloaks as a kind of red carpet welcome to their long expected king. The people are shouting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”.

Jesus heads straight into the temple and symbolically brings judgement on it for its corruption- Driving out those who used the temple for their own financial gain. The hero has arrived to set things right. And the people are sure that things are about to change. … But, the leadership of Jerusalem has different plans for Jesus. They are not about to hail him as king and give up their positions, or disturb the delicate balance they have achieved between them and Rome.

The people were longing for a messiah, but their vision of the Messiah was too much like a superhero. Their vision was too human. When the Messiah arrived they had a to-do list waiting for him. But, Jesus does not come to do the will of human beings. He comes to do the will of God the Father. Jesus does not come to work through the human checklist and kill all the bad guys. His vision is bigger than that.

The will of the Father is to deal with the greater enemies. Jesus is to deal with the enemies and powers that give rise to the Caesars, the Hitlers, the tyrants, and bullies of the world. The will of the Father is not to deal just with the symptoms but to get at the root cause of the disease. Which meant taking on all the hate and violence of the people. …. Quickly the shouts of praise turned to shouts of "crucify him". Instead of being placed on a throne as their king, he was raised up on a cross. As he took on this hate and violence he got closer and closer to the root of the real enemy. Until he came face to face with the ultimate cause of all the suffering in this world- Sin. Destroying Sin’s power, he is raised from the dead and pushes through death to come out the other side a new kind of human being.

Jesus is more than expected. His destiny was not to be just a ruler like King David. He is Immanuel- God with us. Our messiah came to defeat the ultimate enemies of Sin and Death, not just human rulers. Jesus’ sacrifice for our sake can have such an effect because in Jesus we see God’s words and actions. The cross is God’s work for us.

Our love of superheroes exposes our deeper desire for a messiah, but Jesus is obedient to the will of his Father, not our desires. Unlike Superman who fixes all the things we think needs to be fixed, in the way we think they should be fixed- usually through brute force- Jesus comes to fix what God knows needs to be fixed, in the way God wants it to be fixed. Superman does the will of men, but Jesus comes to do the will of God. He came not to be an earthly king, but a heavenly king.

The expected messiah was of the line of King David and was to fulfill God’s promise of an unending heir to David’s throne (2 Sam 7:12-16). But, Jesus is not to take up the royal line and rule in the way David did. While he may be the Son of David, he is also the Son of God, and His kingdom will have no end. The destiny of this hero was not to bring unity and sovereignty to a nation, but to bring salvation to the world. He frees the world from the satanic chains of enslavement. He brings the good news to those who are underprivileged and marginalized that they are not forgotten by God. He releases people captive to sin and corrects the brokenness that is not part of God’s original creation. He calls people to reconsider the path they are walking. He calls them to turn away from the path that leads to slavery and destruction and turn instead to walk the path that leads to God, which is directly through the cross to Jesus’ glorious resurrection. … This is a different kind of king. Jesus came not to fit into our understanding of the world, but to free our understanding to see the world more as God sees it. He came to fulfill the promises God made to humanity.

We want a superhero. We want a messiah to come and set our world straight. We have a messiah, but sometimes we forget that he doesn’t fix things according to our will. He fixes things according to God’s will. He does not use his power to fight violence with more violence. Instead, as Paul tells us in Philippians, "he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!" (Phil 2:7-8). Our hero has arrived and he is working to set things right, but he is not obedient to our expectations or our will. He is obedient to God's expectations and God's will. God was willing to gently ride a donkey and ask for our acceptance, not command it. Jesus teaches us the depth of God’s love for us even by allowing us to kill him on a cross. He was so gentle that he even allowed us to reject him, and crucify him. And even after all that, He will not give up on us. He used even our rejection of him, his own crucifixion, to show the unbelievable depth of his love for us. And that is a hero who is worth believing in.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Mary's out-pouring John12


     Have you ever been so grateful to someone that you didn’t know how to show it? Maybe it was a parent that gave you a large amount of money that helped you buy your first house. Maybe it was a doctor that diagnosed a problem and gave you a medicine that saved your life, or the life of your child. Whoever it was you felt like no matter what you did, it wouldn’t be enough to show your gratitude.   
Mary experienced something amazing that caused her to be filled with gratitude. Our gospel reading isn't the first time Mary has fallen down at Jesus' feet. In the previous chapter Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. There we met a grief-stricken Mary. In John 11:32 we read "When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’"  Having lost her brother, Mary wept at the feet of Jesus, … and Jesus wept with her. Many here know the deep gut wrenching sadness she must have experienced when her brother died. … She cared for her brother, Lazarus, as his illness progressed. At some point they realized that Lazarus was not going to recover. They felt helpless- their cures, their efforts, weren't enough.  They called for Jesus hoping he could work a miracle and save him, but he didn't come. Lazarus died and they entered into mourning. Mary had been grieving for 4 days before Jesus arrived, and she fell at his feet.  
          When we meet Mary in the next chapter she is in an unbelievable situation.  She is at a banquet. She is once again eating with her previously dead and buried brother, who is now alive. Jesus, who brought him back to life, is also at the table. … What would you do? How could you say, "thank you"? How could you possibly thank someone like Jesus in that kind of a situation?
          Mary got a glimpse of who Jesus is. She saw that he is not just a carpenter. He is not just the man she has known as a family friend. He is more. Mary saw Jesus clearly when he gave her brother back to her. In that moment she caught a glimpse of the healing and restoration of the Kingdom of God.
          How do you respond when something that profound happens? What can you possibly say? What can you do to show your gratitude? … In the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, by Isaac Watts there is a line I love, "Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were an offering far too small…". The whole universe given to God is too small an offering of gratitude for what God has done for us. … It’s also a funny image- what do you offer God that is not already His? In our offertory we often pray a verse from 1st Chronicles chapter 29- "all things come from you, and of your own have we given you". We cannot give God anything that is not already His.
          So Mary asks herself how she can show Jesus her gratitude. How can she respond to a man that has brought her brother back to life? How can she respond to a man that has shown her God’s kingdom?      
          Mary had wet Jesus' feet with her tears when her brother, Lazarus, was dead. Now she soaks his feet with expensive perfume- and she wipes them with her hair. Remember that this is a Middle Eastern context and women usually kept their hair covered out of modesty. A woman would usually only show their hair to their husband or family, definitely not to single men. It is incredibly intimate and incredibly inappropriate in this culture. It is scandalous. To Mary she is holding nothing back to show her gratitude. She has thrown all the customs out the window. All that matters to her is the intensity of her gratitude.
          Mary poured perfume on Jesus feet worth a year’s wage- so in modern money this is $40,000 to $50,000 worth of perfume….  I wonder if she used this perfume to anoint Lazarus' dead body. Maybe it was her savings? Perhaps it was her dowry? Maybe it doesn't even matter how much it's worth. It was the best. And maybe that's the point. Oscar Wilde once said a "cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". We think so much in terms of money. That is Judas’ place in our story.
          In a way, Judas is our voice here. Judas heaps our judgement on Mary. Judas speaks out of our discomfort and cynicism. What a waste. How inappropriate. … "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (12:5)   … Mary really gets who Jesus is in this moment. He is no ordinary Rabbi. It is sad that Judas doesn't see it. Better to balance the books than spend time in prayer. Better to do something practical rather than show up at church on Sunday. … Care for the poor is very important. Of course we are to do this. Jesus even says that we will find him by caring for the poor. But, we should also beware of making the poor into an idol. Seek first the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33). Worship is reserved for God alone (Ex 20:3). This is what Mary was doing. … It is out of deep worship of God that we find Christ in the poor and find the strength to serve them. If we turn the poor into an idol, we will use the poor to give us what only God can.   
          Mary gives everything to Jesus because she sees him clearly. The perfume poured out is only a symbol of Mary pouring herself out in love to Jesus. I'm sure Mary even felt that wasn't enough- even that wasn't enough to show the love and devotion that Jesus deserved.
          It makes me think about how often I ask what the bare minimum is. How much do I have to do to be considered a “good Christian”? What is the minimum standard I can meet and still be let in? What is the minimum I should give? What is the minimum amount of prayer per day? What is the minimum amount of Bible study I should do? … That is absolutely not what Mary is thinking. She is extravagantly giving everything. She is holding nothing back. She is pouring herself out at the feet of Jesus.   
In the next chapter (Jn 13) Jesus will teach his disciples how to love and serve each other by washing each other’s feet. Mary has foreshadowed that teaching by washing the feet of Jesus- not with water, but with perfume- and she doesn’t wipe them with a towel, but with her hair. The love she shows is a costly love, but it is a love have barely considers the cost and even wishes it had more to give.
          I didn't finish the verse I quoted from the Hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. It goes, "Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were an offering far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all." Mary poured herself out to Jesus. This act was Mary's Kenosis. Kenosis is a Greek word for emptying. Mary poured herself out. She emptied herself. She gave everything to Jesus in loving worship. She held nothing back. 
          Mary offered everything to Jesus, who was God's kenosis. The Son of God emptied himself as Mary poured out her perfume.  Paul writes in Philippians 2:7-8,  “[The Son] made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”       
          This is God's Kenosis- His self-emptying.  Mary poured her perfume on the one who left his heavenly riches to be poor among us.  Jesus sees her action as pointing to his coming death- the ultimate act of God's self-emptying. He sees her as anointing him for his burial.

          It wasn’t long before that the body of Lazarus was the smell in the air. Now the fragrance of the perfume Mary poured out on Jesus' feet filled the whole house. The fragrance of the out-poured life of the Son of God has filled the whole world. And just as Mary smelled of the perfume because of her act of worship, so we have the fragrance of God's outpouring. Paul says in 2 Cor ch 2:15 "For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved..." So may we smell of the love we have poured out to Jesus…. Which we offer in response to his loved poured out on us.   

Monday, 7 March 2016

what does the love of God look like? Luke 15

The parable of the prodigal son can be so well known to some of us that we can miss some of the depth of the story Jesus is telling. It seems to begin very simply, "‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them." It seems like a slightly strange request. The sort of request a spoiled child might make, but there is a lot more in those two simple sentences than meets the eye. In Jesus’ culture, for a son to ask for his inheritance before his father died is to spit in his father's face. It is a great insult. Kenneth Bailey spend a good deal of his life trying to understand the Bible by studying the cultures of the Middle East and Mediterranean. He says this,
"For over 15 years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son's request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same... the conversations runs as follows:
'Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?'
'Could anyone ever make such a request?'
'If anyone ever did, what would happen?'
'His father would beat him of course!'
'The request means- he wants his father to die.' 

This is an offensive request on many levels. Not only does he essentially wish his father was dead. He also sells his portion of the land. That might not be a big deal to us. We do that all the time. Remember that he is Jewish. In his worldview, this land was given to his family by God. It is the Promised Land. You don’t up and sell the land God gave your family. It is to reject your family’s values and traditions. The land isn't just resources. It is his family's inheritance from God. ... Amazingly, his father goes along with the request when he would have had every right to beat him instead.   
            The son sells his half of the land, takes his money, and leaves. He goes to a 1st century Las Vegas. He lives among the Gentiles and "squandered his wealth in wild living".  For some of you I don't have to describe what "wild living" is because you've been there. For others of you I don't have to describe it because you have watched others march off to that other land. Maybe you have siblings, children, or friends who are still there. They try to fill a void in themselves with some sort of pleasure, or some sort of excitement.
            As happens, the money runs out. The beer stops flowing. When the beer is no more, the friends are no more. Reality starts to settle in.  It takes a little while to hit rock bottom. First, he tries to make it work. He gets a job as a pig feeder. It's an awful job for a Jewish boy. It's a job that would make him unclean- literally and religiously. But,... he has his pride, he can make a go of it. He works hard, for little pay. He gets thinner, and more desperate, and moves closer to rock bottom. Eventually he is desperate. He is out of options.... but he can't return to his father, not after what he did, he couldn't face him. The prodigal son is left in that lonely place that some of us will recognize from our past. … You are all alone in the world. You have run out of options. You are between a rock and a hard place. There doesn't seem to be any light in your tunnel. In fact it doesn't seem like a tunnel at all. It seems like a room... a prison.
            In that place of desperation options become available only once our pride has been completely humbled. What we would never consider before starts to become a possibility. He would rather feed pigs, and eat what the pigs are eating, rather than return home. But, .... eventually ... things get so bad that he starts longing for the food he’s feeding the pigs. Starvation is a powerful motivator.  The prodigal son comes to a fork in the road.  Stay and die, hungry for pig slop, ... or take a chance and try to return home.
            He could never return home as a son, but maybe he could come back as a servant. At least they ate well. He starts to prepare for his desperate journey. How can he face his father after acting so disgraceful, after turning his back on his tradition and family? On the long road home he rehearses what he will say.  "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants." Over and over he said the words, like a mantra, visualizing himself home, but not home. Serving at the family table, but not eating at it. Taking orders from his father and older brother, but not as before, now as a servant, as a slave, not as a son and a brother. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants."   
              When he was able to see the family farm he saw the outline of his father in the distance. Suddenly his father was running- a very undignified thing for the head of a noble family. Don't look him in the eye.  Maybe he will have mercy. Just take the beating.
            As the son braces himself for the father's wrath his father picks him off the ground and throws his arms around him and kisses him. Surprised, the son starts his mantra, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son"... the father interrupts him, he doesn't get a chance to finish the mantra he has practiced every step of his journey.   
               The father commands the servants "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
            Of course this is a parable Jesus tells to let us know about the limitless love of God. It is scandalous love. It is love that even seems to defy justice. It is not what the son deserves, but this doesn't have anything to do with the son. It has everything to do with a loving father getting his son back. He pours out his abundance on him and throws a party.
            The son did not understand the father. The son expected what was fair. If any mercy was shown it would have been in allowing his face to be shown around the farm as a slave, but not as a son. The son did not understand his father's love. He thought his sin was greater than his father’s love.
            As a priest I sometimes meet people who really don't believe that God has forgiven them. They really believe that what they have done is greater than God's willingness to forgive. Some think they can’t come to church until they get their lives straightened out. As if they have to make themselves good before they can walk through the doors, or lightning will hit them.  In this parable Jesus is telling us that nothing is further from the truth. God's love is more abundant and more powerful than our sin. God is overjoyed at our return to him.
            Some of us can relate a little more easily to the older brother. He did what was responsible. He stayed home and fulfilled his obligations. For the older brother, the younger brother should come in the back door with his head hung low,... if he is let in at all. He should live on bread and water and live in the barn and feel ashamed. Some of us think the older brother’s right. After all, here he is obediently working the farm while his little brother is doing who knows what with who knows who. It's not fair. Where is his party?   Seeing his brother get welcomed back with open arms after spitting in his family’s face fills him with jealousy, and anger, and bitterness. He is resentful.
            "Look!", he says to his father. "All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!"
            The older brother is just saying what is fair, what is just, what is the expected norm for how families work. The younger son should be taught a lesson, he should be punished, maybe even banished, ... but a party?!? That doesn't make any kind of sense.
            Here we see that even the older brother misunderstands his relationship to his father. The younger son rejects his father and runs thinking there must be greener fields elsewhere. There's more fun to be had, and a better life to be lived somewhere away from his father. … That God stuff is boring. It's not my thing.
            The older brother has stuck it out at the farm, but is equally lost. He sees working with his father as slavery. "I've obeyed" he says. "I've followed your orders", "All these years I've been slaving for you". This is not a father-son relationship. The older son alienates himself from his father by considering his work slavery and drab obedience. This is a master-slave relationship. The older son is poisoned by contempt. He has now alienated himself from his father's home. He speaks harshly to him, when he's in the midst of hosting a party. He refuses to enter his father’s house because of his younger brother's party. Perhaps he was even a bit jealous that he was out doing all the things he wasn't allowed to do.  It seems the father really has two prodigal sons. The older son was physically present, but in his heart he had wandered away from his father. He had made himself a slave and lost his joy.  … The father is generous and loving towards both of them.
            The Pharisees and religion scholars of his day had a problem with Jesus hanging out with sinners. He's running with a bad crowd. He can't be as religious as he presents himself. Jesus tells three parables in response to this accusation. The first is a parable about a shepherd who finds a lost sheep. The second is a parable about a woman who finds a lost coin. And this parable is the third. They all have the same message. The one who is looking is filled with joy at finding what was once lost and throws a party. In all three parables God is the one who is looking, and God is the one who is overjoyed at finding those who had been lost. So here Jesus is surrounded by "sinners" who are being healed and transformed. The Pharisees seem blind to the changes taking place.  The three stories are Jesus' way of asking if they will join the party. God’s power is manifesting and they are looking for what is wrong. There is a garden full of beautiful flowers in front of them and all they see is the one weed. They are so focused on sin they miss seeing God’s action.
As we meditate on this parable we are to see ourselves in it. Are we the wanderer? The broken son who hit rock bottom? Who hit the end of our power to find that we have been looking in all the wrong places? Are we the one who returned to the Father’s house to be welcomes home with open arms, forgiven and honoured? … Or, are we the older brother? We have always done the responsible thing, but we don’t really feel like we’ve gotten our due. We give and give and we feel like we get nothing in return. We become angry, bitter, and resentful. I’ve met people who feel this way who have been in the church their whole lives, but find themselves feeling jealous when someone who has been living a rough life of addiction has a dramatic conversion experience and returns to the church full of excitement. …     Both of them misunderstood their Father. Both of them underestimated the extent of God’s love.      

There is one other way to see ourselves in this story. We can dare to see ourselves as the father. We can reflect the Father’s love. We can welcome the broken home with opened arms not asking anything of them. We can shower them in love for sheer joy at their return. We can lovingly plead with the bitter and resentful who see themselves as used up slaves, who want nothing to do with their brother. We can find ourselves so grounded in God’s joy that our lives are transformed. We have no need to grasp for power for fear of losing it. We have no need to grasp for the world’s idea of success, or popularity. We are secure in our Father’s home.  Fear is gone and our identity if found in the love of our Father who loved us so much he send his son to come bring us home.  It is there that we can find the love to show others.  If we are bold, we can be imitators of the Father, pouring out our love on those who have become lost in sin.  But this will only be possible when we realize how deeply and profoundly our heavenly Father loves us. AMEN   
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