When Elijah Finally Heard Silence

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 25, 2016
Taken from 1 Kings 19:1-13

St Elijah and the Hearth Bread

 

This past Wednesday I traveled over to Waynesboro for a meeting.  That gave me a chance on the way back to do something I find fun to do. Before coming back over the mountain, I like to fill up my gas tank at one of the gas stations there where Rosser Avenue intersects with I-64.

Then just as I’m about to top over Afton Mountain, I reset my gas mileage calculator to zero and I shift my car into neutral and I coast down Afton Mountain. I am very easily entertained.  I will admit that.  What entertains me about this is watching my gas mileage calculator calculate my gas mileage as I coast down Afton Mountain on my way back to Charlottesville.

So, I’ve reset my gas mileage calculator to zero, I’m in neutral, I’m coasting down Afton Mountain.  I’m watching the calculator with one eye, my speedometer with one eye, and the road with my other eye.  Occasionally I’m having to apply the brakes to stay at the speed limit.

The first calculation that pops up is 33. 6 miles per gallon, but I smile in anticipation because I know where this will end up…33.6…33.7….34.0…on and on the readout of my mileage calculator climbs.  Forty-two miles per gallon!  Eh…that’s nothing, as I continue coasting down Afton Mountain.

I hit 50 miles per gallon, then 60 and 70 and 80 and 90 miles per gallon, and I’m laughing because I’m only half way down Afton Mountain.  Finally, the calculator tops out at 99.9 miles per gallon that I’m getting in my little Ford Focus, and I’m still not off the mountain.

My calculator won’t go any higher, so who knows how much my actual gas mileage is when I finally come down off the Mountain?  A hundred  and ten miles per gallon?  A hundred and fifteen miles per gallon?  What an amazing car I’m driving!  This is absolutely thrilling me!  This is so excellent an experience!

Until I start coasting on towards Crozet.  The calculator holds at 99.9 miles per gallon for a few miles, but then, inevitably, the gravity that gave me that fabulous mileage coming down the mountain now starts to taking it back…90 miles per gallon…89.9 miles per gallon…well, I won’t count it out for you.  Let’s just say reality can be a bitter cup from which to drink.

What happened to all my wonderful miles per gallon?  Was my calculator malfunctioning?  No. My calculator was working perfectly.  Was I dreaming or hallucinating?  Nope, to the best of my knowledge, I was stone-cold sober and clear-eyed.

My readout was factually correct; in full truthfulness I can tell you that my little Ford Focus gets better than 99.9 miles to the gallon.  At least, when I’m coasting from the top of Afton Mountain, most of the way down to exit 107.

So, let’s see if that has anything whatsoever to do with Elijah’s experience here in 1 Kings, chapter 19. If not, then I’m about lay an egg, but I think it might help us.

Last week, we saw Elijah have this great victory up high on Mount Carmel.  He put the 450 prophets of Baal to shame.  Baal was nowhere to be found, but Yahweh God showed up with a tremendous display of fire reigning down from the sky above.  Elijah’s riding high…he is getting 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon, and he’s still up on the mountain top coming down to the valley below.

Elijah commands this fired-up frenzied mob of religious folk to seize the prophets of Baal; commands they drag these 450 men of false faith, to go down with Elijah into the valley, where Elijah oversees the execution of those 450 men.  He’s still clocking in at 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon in his soul.

Then, the reality of Elijah’s world starts encroaching.  The gravity of what Elijah has done starts dragging at him.  The off-the-chart calculation of Elijah’s enthusiasm begins to spiral down, as the reality of Elijah’s pyrrhic victory collides with the reality of Jezebel’s burning vengeance.

Chapter 19, verse 2, “…Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and worse, if I do not make your life as the life of one my dead prophets by this time tomorrow.’”  And, suddenly, not only is Elijah getting really bad mileage, but Elijah discovers that his soul is just about on empty and the little warning is blinking at him, announcing his grand road trip is about to run out of gas.

Have you ever gotten the equivalent of 99.9 spiritual miles per gallon in your soul?  Have you ever experienced what it was like to know the presence of God and the power of God and the overwhelming reality of God in and around and beyond everything in your soul?

Nothing was wrong with you.  Everything was working the way it should with you.  You weren’t dreaming or hallucinating.  You knew correctly; perhaps you even testified truthfully, you experienced the Living God.  For a time, in your travels with God, you were getting better than 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon in your soul.  But, then, the gravity of this world took hold of you…the reality of Spirit of God within you gaveth, but now other realities draineth…and, so, now, you’re not so sure any more about that whole God thing.

Don’t let it fluster you too much.  It happens to us all.  It happened even to Elijah.  The question is, what do we do with that experience of exhilaration?  What do we do with that knowledge that at some point, for some brief part of the journey, we knew the simple and pure joy of God within us.  That is, until those who serve the gods of this world threaten to overwhelm us and to defeat us?  All those “Ahabs and Jezebels” and their minions, those prophets of Baal we thought we’d dispatched never to come ‘round again but who, now, seem to rise and haunt like ghosts from the grave?

Well, Elijah just decided he didn’t want anything else to do with any of it!  Curse them all!  And, curse me for caring so much!  Elijah takes off, heading south.  Recall your Bible-land geography.  If you have your Bible, it’s o.k. to look back into the maps.

This sacred Promised Land which God gave to the Israelites lay within the ancient boundaries of Canaan.  The twelve tribes had scattered up and down Canaan.  Eventually, King David unified the tribes into the nation of Israel.  King David’s successor, Solomon, manages to keep the twelve tribes united.  But, after King Solomon’s death, the people became divided once again, splitting the Promised Land into two competing entities, Israel in the northern half and Judah in the southern.

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel ruled the northern kingdom of Israel, so Ezekiel heads south out of Israel, down into Judah to escape Jezebel.  Elijah safely crosses the border into Judah, he doesn’t stop there.  Elijah keeps right on going, traveling further south down through Judah, until he comes to the southern border town of Beersheba.  Elijah is now at the southern-most point of The Promised Land.  He is well beyond Jezebel’s assassins.   But, does Elijah stop there even?  No.

In verses 3 and 4, Elijah leaves Beersheba.  He crosses over Judah’s southern border and goes a day’s journey even further south.  Do you realize what Elijah has just done there in verse 4?  Not only has Elijah fled from Ahab and Jezebel way up north, Elijah has left behind the Promised Land entirely.  He’s gone into a desert no-man’s land.1

That’s how angry and frightened and depleted Elijah had become.  He left the people of God behind him entirely.  He’s even left the Promised Land of God behind him.  Curse them all!  And, curse me for caring so much!  That’s what Elijah is telling God.  “I’m finished!” Elijah tells God in verse 4.  “My life means nothing!  I am worth no more than the ashen bones of my ancestors, so just finish me off here and now!”  Elijah falls asleep, hoping never to wake up again.  What a terrible and dark place to be in one’s own head and in one’s own soul.

If you’ve ever been there in your own head and soul, it’s really, really hard to take care of yourself until you’re better.  It’s also really, really hard to let someone else take care of you.  But, if you ever do find yourself reaching that desperate place of wishing your own death, please let someone take care of you for a bit.

If there’s no one around, and you’ve got a phone handy, you make yourself pick it up and dial 911.  Or, get yourself to an emergency room or a walk-in clinic.  Don’t even debate it with yourself.  Taking care of yourself is not up for debate.  God takes care of Elijah, even though Elijah doesn’t want taking care of.

Think about all the other ways God could have responded to Elijah.  In places, the Old Testament presents God to us in a pretty rough ways:  pestilence and floods and fires and general acts of divine mayhem.  So, maybe we’d expect God to be pretty rough on Elijah, too.

You remember that Geico commercial from several years ago where the serious spokesman asks, “Can Geico really save you 15% on your car insurance?”  He pauses and then asks, rhetorically, “Does a former drill sergeant make a terrible therapist?”

Then, it shows a client on the therapist’s couch, pouring his heart out to this former drill sergeant-turned-therapist.  The therapist proceeds to ridicule the client, which makes the client cry; he offers the client a tissue and when the client reaches for the box, the therapist slings the box at the client in disgust.

Maybe we’d expect that kind of ‘quit your sniveling’ reaction from God to Elijah, but no.  God takes care of Elijah.  God sends an angelic messenger who prepares some hot baked bread and some cold water for Elijah.  You know, sometimes what you need are your carbs replenished and rehydration.  Elijah eats and drinks and falls back to sleep.  Sleep…sometimes you need more sleep and rest, too.

A second day, God sends the messenger to wake up Elijah and make him eat.  Don’t overdo the sleep…don’t let sleep turn into an escape from taking care of yourself…you’ve got to eat and drink to replenish what your body needs.

The third thing God does for Elijah is God takes this journey with Elijah.  God transforms Elijah’s flight from life into a journey to rejuvenate his life.  God helps Elijah to rediscover purpose and calling for his life.

God takes Elijah back, way back, in time and place to where it all started:  Mount Horeb, better known to us as Mount Sinai.2  Mount Horeb, where Moses met God on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights.  Where Moses hid in the cleft of the rock, shielding himself as God passed.

Mount Horeb, where God through made covenant with this mass of rescued slaves and began to transform them into God’s people.  As many centuries ago for Moses, so now for Elijah.

In verse 11, God calls Elijah to come out from the cave where he is hiding.  God is about to pass by.  But, as we read in verse 13, apparently Elijah had said no way I’m staying put in my cave.

But God acts anyway, in all the ways that have up to point super-fueled Elijah’s faith.  God sends a terrific, destructive wind that sheers plates of rock off the mountain face, sending them flying, shattering down the mountainside.  But, Elijah somehow understood, this terrible wind was not the true revelation of God with him, so he stays put.

Then God sends an earthquake; it’s as though God has snatched Mount Horeb by the throat, shaking it as though the destroy this sacred mountain itself.  But, still Elijah hides himself in the cave, knowing that God had not yet passed by.

Finally, the fire rained down around the cave where Elijah hides.  It’s the divine fire of God that Elijah himself had once called down on that other mountain top called Carmel.  But, now, Elijah realizes, fire does not show God for who God really is; so still, he hides in the cave.

God was not in the wind, not in earthquake, not in the fire…what torrent will next sweep down around Elijah.  There comes…what?  What was that, which Elijah thought he heard, after the fire?  Was it anything at all?  Was there someone out there, outside of the cave, speaking, calling out to Elijah?

The phrase there at the end of verse 13 gets translated in various ways.  It can be translated as “a sound, a fine silence” that Elijah hears.  It can also be translated as “a voice, a small whisper”.  In the silence itself, he hears God speak, “Elijah…what are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah once loved the thrill of that 99.9 miles per gallon kind of experience with God, but now God is reorienting Elijah in his grasp of God.  Scholar John Gray interprets the meaning of this encounter to be this:  God is admonishing Elijah not to expect God to be revealed in a way that thrills Elijah and that destroys the opposition.  It is not in “the supernatural and spectacular in-breaking of Yahweh” into events with the “storm, earthquake, and fire”.

Instead, Dr. Gray continues in his scholarly way, God comes to Elijah with “an intelligible revelation to find God’s direction in the ordinary course of daily life…to communicate [God’s direction] regularly and constructively.” 4   Wow, doesn’t that sound… boring.

No, not really.  There’s nothing boring about God in any way, shape or form that God chooses to reveal the Divine Presence to us.

I grant you, whirlwind, earthquake and fire are exciting and satisfying and will get you revved up.  Yes!  when it’s whirling and quaking and scorching someone else, especially when it’s happening to folks we wish God would remove from this earth.

But, it’s not God.  It’s not redemptive, and God is finally revealed to us as the God Who Redeems.  God does not shatter nor wrench nor scorch the land, nor does God do that to people.  We do that.  God, instead, redeems people as well as redeems lands.

When God wanted to prepare for coming among us in Jesus of Nazareth, God chose another like Elijah to prepare the way.  When Jesus, in the course of his ministry, needed God to validate him, God sent Elijah, along with Moses, to meet Jesus up on that Mount we call Transfiguration.  But, neither an Elijah nor a Moses is our Lord and Savior.

On that day we call “Palm Sunday”, Jesus’ followers expected a triumphal king to march through Jerusalem’s gates, to march up the Temple steps and to call down all forms of destruction on God’s enemies.  God instead gave them the king who surrendered his life to death on a cross not only to redeem his followers but to redeem his enemies, as well.

When the followers of Jesus most expected their own destruction, God gave them resurrection instead.  They learned, no person and no people, no servant of God, and no congregation that serves that same God, no, not one will God abandoned nor cause to fail.  Any of us may come coasting down off a mountain-top of victory one day, only to find ourselves wandering in the desert of despair.  But, in that silence, we will find God who whispered out to Elijah, still speaks our names.

The God who finally showed up in Jesus, still keeps showing up.  We too, let us keep showing up, witnessing of God who redeems all people, in all the lands of the earth.  That is our purpose in God’s service.  It’s purpose enough for any of us.

______________________________

1Both DeVries and Gray note the significance of Elijah’s further travel south beyond Beersheba; Simon J. DeVries, 1 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, John D.W. Watts, ed. (Waco:  Word Books, Publisher, 1985) p. 237; and John Gray, I & II Kings:  A Commentary (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1970) p. 407.

2For Moses’ experiences on Mount Horeb (Sinai) see, for example, in Exodus chps. 19-20, chp. 33:17-23; and chp. 34:1-10.

3Gary T. Dalton, “Exposition of I Kings 19:9-18”, December 6, 1982, written for partial completion of requirements for class, “Introduction to Old Testament,” The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY; Fall Semester, 1982; Dr. Page Kelley, professor.

4op. cit., p. 410.

When Fire Reigned

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 19, 2016
Taken from 1 Kings 18:20-21, 25-40

The medium is the message!

“The medium is the message” is the well-known statement Marshall McLuhan introduced in 1964.That is, McLuhan observed, the media which are the containers and conveyers of our messages, becomes part of the messages themselves.

If I tell you that on two different occasions I went to two different restaurants but ordered the same thing to drink at both restaurants, what could you tell me about each restaurant?  Well, maybe that I have a favorite beverage that I like to have wherever I go.

What if I told you, yes, I do have a favorite beverage when I eat out:  it’s unsweetened iced-tea served with a slice of lemon.  Again, you would know that much about me, but you still would not be able to tell me anything about the two restaurants.

But, what if I told that at one of these two restaurants, the server brought me my unsweetened iced-tea contained in a goblet of fine crystal-glass with the lemon-slice nicely slipped onto the rim of the glass?  Then, what if I told you that at the second restaurant, the server brought me my unsweetened iced-tea contained in a mason jar, along with a little bowl containing several slices of lemon for our mutual convenience?

The only additional information I have given to you is about the container in which the server brought me my iced-tea and lemon-slice.  I haven’t said a word about the locations of the two restaurants or the names of the restaurants or the quality of the iced-tea they each served me.  The only thing I have told you is the container in which each restaurant serves iced-tea to its patrons.

But, with that single bit of additional information—a fine crystal goblet or a mason jar–you now could tell me with a great deal of accuracy all kinds of things about each of those restaurants.

You could tell me about what likely was on the menu of each restaurant; you could describe to me the décor of each restaurant; you could even describe for me how my fellow patrons and I were likely dressed as we ate in each restaurant.

And you could supply me with all that information based simply on this single bit of seemly inconsequential data:  what container does each restaurant use to convey to its customer the contents of iced-tea with a lemon-slice.  Marshall McCluhan seems to have been right on the money back in 1964:  the medium and the message are inseparable.

So, I ask you:  what may we conclude?…what message do we perceive?… when the prophets of two gods gather on a mountain-top, lay out their sacrifices, and, then, in the terms laid out by Elijah in our case, in verse 24, “‘…you call on your god and I will call on the name of [mine]; and the God who answers by fire, by golly, he is God.’”  When the medium of revelation is trial by fire, what message may we gather of the god who then rains down that fire?

I was an architecture student my first year at Virginia Tech.  Your first year of architecture, you are constantly building little models.  The professors lay out concepts of structure or beauty or any kind of abstract idea, and then they tell the students to go translate that idea into a three-dimensional object.

One Tuesday, the professor gave us his lecture; he laid out this abstract concept; now, he tells us, go build a model to illustrate how you understand the concept I presented to you.  It’s due on Thursday.

Thursday comes around.  We’re all ready, with our little models sitting up on our bench-tops.  But, instead of coming around to each of our work stations to view our models, the professor tells us to meet in the presentation room…that’s just a fancy name for a big empty classroom.

He gathers us into a big circle and calls on us each in our turn to lay our models there on the floor in the middle of the circle.  The professor then carefully walks around each model, circling it like a hawk circles a field mouse, finally, crouching down over the model, staring at it, and then looking up at the student:  “Please, this, explain,” he asks the student.

As I watch this inquisition unfolding, to my horror I realize that my classmates have positioned their models on nice pieces of poster-board, so their models aren’t just sitting all exposed on the floor.  That was not in the professor’s instructions.  Everyone else just seemed to know this is how you do it, except me.

My model is fairly small and will fit nicely on a piece of notebook paper.  So, I rip out a page from my spiral-bound notebook.  You know how a page rips out of a spiral-bound notebook, with all the little perforations down the edge and usually some little bits of paper tear out and stick to the perforations.  Eh!  At least now I’ve got something to set my model on.

My turn comes.  The professor invites me to present my offering.  I carefully lay down my sheet of spiral-bound notebook paper and then carefully position my model dead-center on the paper.  Then, I scurry back and watch as the hawk begins circling its prey.

The professor circles, stoops, rubs his chin and studies what I’ve laid before him.  “This is very interesting,” he says.  “Ah!” I think with relief…the professor thinks my model is interesting.

But, now, he’s poking my model around with his finger, shifting it first to one side of the notebook paper and then to other side, as if he’s unsure where it best fits on the paper.

Finally, he looks up at me.  “This, I understand,” he says to me, pointing to my model.  “But, this?  This, I don’t understand,” he says, circling with his finger the paper.  “What is the meaning of this part of your project?” (finger circling the paper), “to this part of your project?” (finger poking the model, pushing it around again.)  I was at a loss to answer his question…what was the relationship, what was the meaning, of the sheet of notebook paper to my model?

The medium of presentation–my ripped-out piece of notebook paper–and my carefully crafted model—my message to my professor of how I understood him—these were now joined as a whole in his eyes.  “Please, this, explain.”  The lesson he was teaching us at my great discomfort was, the medium becomes intertwined with the message.

The explanation for the god called “Baal”, really, is quite simple.  We all know the answer, right?  There is no such actual being named Baal. Elijah knows that, but Elijah’s not going to let these four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal off the hook so easily.  “Please, this, explain!” Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal in verse 27.

“Cry aloud, shout it out from the mountain-top!  For surely he is a god, isn’t he?  Well, maybe your god is lost in thought.  Or, maybe it’s this…maybe Baal has momentarily left the room to tend to some urgent business.”

The Hebrew scribes just loved this part of Elijah’s taunt, because the expression Elijah uses can be translated, “tending to urgent business” as in “going to the bathroom.”2 “Maybe your god had to go see a man about a horse…I’m sure he’ll back any moment now.”  “Or, perhaps,” Elijah continues in verse 27, “he’s gone off on a journey, or maybe Baal’s just fallen asleep and you’ve got to shout even louder to wake him up!”

Which, no doubt to Elijah’s delight, is exactly what the prophets of Baal do!  They double-down on their pleas to Baal!  In verses 28 and 29, “And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them….on they raved.”

Then, suddenly it seems, they all stop and grow still and listen…”But,” verse 29 concludes, “there was no voice…no one answered…no one showed up.”

Elijah says, “Move aside, boys, and let me show you how a real prophet of the one, true God gets it done!”

Elijah selects twelves large stones which he stacks together.  The twelves stones represent the twelve tribes of Israel.  He digs a huge trench around these twelve stones that now become the altar.  He stacks the wood on the altar.  He slaughters the sacrificial bull, cuts it up, and lays it out over the wood and the stones.

Then, in Elijah’s bow to showmanship and his general in-your-face attitude, Elijah commands that four huge jars of water be poured over everything…the bull, the wood, the stones…do it a second time, he commands, as the crowd watches in awe.  Do it a third time, Elijah commands, the crowd now left breathless at Elijah’s performance.  Water drains down and fills the trench around the altar.

All is ready, now.  Elijah doesn’t do anything else…he doesn’t dance around the altar or shout or scream or slash himself.  All he does is offer this prayer, essentially, “God, don’t let me down after all this grand build-up.”  Verses 36 and 37, Elijah prays, “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel…that I am thy servant…answer me, O Lord, answer me….”

And, my, but how God answers that short, simple prayer of Elijah’s.  Verse 38, “Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.”

Up until then, the people of Israel were gathered there in the big middle, undecided whether to line up over here behind the prophets of Baal, or to line up over there behind lone Elijah and Yahweh.  That’s the picture Elijah had given back over in verse 21, when he’d told the people, “For God’s sake!  How long will you go on limping between two different opinions?  Make up your minds:  if it’s Yahweh, follow him; if it’s Baal, follow him.”

Well, sisters and brothers…you see that divine fire fall from heaven and vaporize everything it touches…that’ll help you make up your mind in hurry!  They don’t walk; they run over to line up behind Elijah and Yahweh in verse 39, shouting as they run, “Yahweh, he is God!  Yahweh, he is God!”

But, remember this:  Marshall McLuhan may have written it down for us in 1964, but it’s always been true:  the medium is the message.  When divine fire rains down from heaven above, what message do you perceive about the God who reigns by fire?

Elijah prayed God to answer with fire.  God, as God is shown to do from time to time with God’s prophets and God’s people, God accommodates Elijah’s request and answers with fire.  And, in that medium of revelation by fire, Elijah thinks he finds permission to do what he orders be done, in verse 40:  “Round up the prophets of Baal; don’t let a single one get away.”

The people mob around those 450 prophets of Baal, long knives appear.  Elijah leads this frenzied mob down off the mountain, and there 450 throats are slashed, and their blood fills up the barren bed of the drought-starved brook of Kishon.

Which, nowhere, is in God’s instruction to Elijah.  Read through 1 Kings, chapter 17 and chapter 18.  The only message God gives Elijah to give to King Ahab is this:  “As Yahweh, God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” (1 Kgs. 17:1) Then, God orders Elijah to go into hiding for a few years.  The drought takes hold and strangles the land and the people of Israel.  Move ahead one chapter.

Chapter 18, verse 1, “…the word of Yahweh came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, ‘Go, show yourself to Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.’”  So, Elijah comes out of hiding and shows himself to Ahab.  Skip over to chapter 18, verse 41, “And Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of the rushing rain’.”  And, very soon, the rain does rush in and pours down over the land of Israel.  That was God’s mandate to Elijah.

God, I believe, meant to be revealed as the one true and living God through the medium of life-refreshing, life-sustaining rain, because that’s what the prophets of Baal claimed for their god, that Baal provided the rain.  God, I believe, meant simply to say to the people of the covenant, “You want to live under Baal’s care?  O.K., try it for a while.  I’ll check back in with you in three years or so.”

It is not at all my place to question why in the world God would accommodate Elijah in this trial by fire.  That’s not my call to make.  But, neither do I believe it was Elijah’s call to command the people round up those 450 prophets of Baal and execute them.

I cannot fathom why God accommodates any of us whom God has called out to be children of the covenant.  I cannot fathom why God accommodate us while we limp about, seemingly undecided on whether we really want to serve the living God, or whether we want to want to serve those who beckon us to come after lesser gods, or maybe, if we can have both at the same time.  God says, “no, my children, you can’t serve both God and something that’s not God.”

The ultimate accommodation God made is when God finally came to us, flesh and bone.  Mind, heart, strength, and soul, Jesus was, like any other human mortal borne of woman, borne of the flesh.  Yet, Jesus who by perfect faith loved God perfectly—mind, heart, strength, and soul—discovered in his young life’s journey, his true self:  that he was the Son of God as well as the Son of mortals.

You recall, I’m sure, the sermon from two Sunday’s ago.  John the Baptist thought Jesus might just be old Elijah returned to earth, to baptize with Holy Spirit and once again to rain down Holy Fire.  When Jesus turned out not to be so much the firebrand John had hoped for, John got worried, wanted to know if he’d make a mistake. (Luke 7:18-35).

You see, John the Baptist knew this Elijah account.  He knew this part about the divine fire falling.  John the Baptist thought that was the enduring message of God:  fire reigned then!  Fire reigns now!  Let the fire fall where it may!”

“Surprise!” says Jesus to John the Baptist:  turns out, you are Elijah come to prepare God’s people, not me; I am the Savior who comes, bringing a different kind of fire…the fire which purifies and transforms the inner being of whomever welcomes me and welcomes the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God, this community of love, wherein “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them.”  (Luke 7:22)

Or, would you prefer I slit a few throats, Cousin John?  That I rain down fire to incinerate our enemies, cleanse us of our infidels, expunge the followers of other gods amongst us?

What kind of fire reigns in your heart?  The only flame from above that I read about in my New Testament is the flame of God’s Spirit raining down on that day of Pentecost…we looked at that together too several Sundays ago.  When young and old, male and female, spoke the word of life to all people, people surprised that the Gospel was meant for them, too.

Does God’s fire reign now in the heart of University Baptist Church?  If not, then may we lift up that same prayer of Elijah’s, not that fire fall that incinerates rock, but that this Holy Spirit Pentecost fire might now fall and reign over us, person by person, until this congregation burns brightly for our Lord and his Gospel.


1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_medium_is_the_message

2Simon J. DeVries, 1 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, John D.W. Watts, ed. (Waco:  Word Books, Publisher, 1985) p. 229.

Roxanne

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 12, 2016
Taken from Luke 7:36-8:3

2016 -06-12 "Roxanne" Peter Paul Reuben

 

“One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him, and so Jesus went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table.”  Thus, Luke begins to paint his picture for us.  Much as Peter Paul Rubin later did, depicting this story through his early 17th century painting that’s on the cover of our bulletin this morning; so Luke presents us first with this tableau.  There is first no interpretation at first, but only presentation.

Luke’s canvas is the dinner table in the home of an unnamed Pharisee.  Four times in these opening verses, Luke refers to him simply as “the Pharisee”.  Luke will later mention there are others there at table, we may assume they too are Pharisees and scribes; certainly, Luke’s first readers would have assumed the presence of these others, and so Luke has no need to mention them at this point.

There, says Luke, you see the Pharisee who has invited Jesus to share dinner at this table; you see, of course, the other religious notables of the town also gathered around the table with the Pharisee and Jesus.  There, they recline in the usual manner of the day, leaning upon the table with their legs stretched out behind them.

The tableau so far, in verse 36, is one of typical early Middle Eastern hospitality, but Luke is not finished yet with his tableau. “Look, there!” Luke points us as he continues in the next verse, verse 37…”Look!  Behold!”  Unfortunately, the translators of the New International Version printed in the worship bulletin made a serious misstep in their work.  For some reason, they left out this simple but most important word direction to us from Luke.

The first two words Luke writes to us his readers in verse 37 is this emphatic direction, “And, behold!”   It’s a narrative word; it’s a word meant to signal to the reader, “now, pay attention and watch what happens next!” 1

“Don’t miss this!   Do you see her?   You don’t know who she is, do you?  She’s the town…well, you know!  Oh, my gosh!   What in the world!  How did she slip in?  I don’t know, but there she is!

Luke continues laying out the brush strokes of this shocking tableau, as this infamous woman silently enters the room.  She is the woman whom no man would dare to be seen with, certainly not in the light of day; certainly never near the good and pleasant homes of their fair city.  Yet, there she is, quickly slipping in behind the guests reclined at table, crouching down, finally stopping to bend over the feet of the guest of honor, this Galilean peasant rabbi, Jesus.

Of course, the Pharisee sees it, just as we see it, because Luke told us, “watch for it!”  The Pharisee sees that she holds a small, alabaster vial, as she kneels down, her face now but a breath’s distance from Jesus’ feet.  As silently she has entered the room, so silently she weeps, her tears flowing so fully and freely they fall from her cheeks onto Jesus’ feet.  She lets her tears fall, as if to bathe the dust off these feet she now tenderly holds.

The Pharisee watches; as the host, he’s horrified, of course.  Yet, he is also intrigued because he questions the truthfulness of this rabbi.  His can’t understand why Jesus does not react in the slightest to this filth that dares to touch him.  Jesus fails to yank his feet away out of the hands of this mess of a woman, this unclean woman that no righteous man would even tolerate to share the same path with him.   Certainly, no anointed prophet would abide such an embodiment of all that God abhors.

These are the reactions and the thoughts that race through the Pharisee’s mind, as he looks down on this woman.  He looks back up to see that his guest, Jesus, has been watching him, waiting for him to take it all in.

By verse 40, Luke’s tableau of words is now complete, much as Rubin’s paint strokes so well capture the moment on his own artist’s canvas.  We see it, as the Pharisee sees it.  Now, Jesus challenges his host and us to see it as Jesus sees it.

In verse forty, we learn that Luke actually does know this Pharisee’s name, as Jesus says to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”  But, what of the woman’s identity?

All four Gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—all four tell some version of this story.2  All four agree that at some point in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus had dinner in someone’s house when a woman slipped up behind Jesus, broke open an alabaster flask of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus with the perfume.  After that, the details among the four writers differ on exactly what, when, how, why, and most especially, on who this woman was who did the anointing.

Matthew, Mark and John agree that the woman does this anointing to show her extravagant love for Jesus.  It had nothing to do with her sinfulness and her forgiveness.  The woman simply wanted to express her total devotion to Jesus, by bestowing on him this exceptional gift, an act for which the others at table with Jesus criticize her, because of her extravagence.

Matthew and Mark don’t name her.  John, however, tells us that this is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  (John 11:1-44)

That’s all good and well until we toss in Luke’s account of the woman anointing Jesus.  Because, based on Luke’s telling, it was commonly understood that this woman was a prostitute everybody knew about in that town.

Well, it did not sit well with later church leaders to have a story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus associated with a very similar story of a prostitute anointing Jesus.  So, in the 6th century, Pope Gregory the First decided to put the question of this woman’s identity to rest.3

Pope Gregory decreed that Luke recorded a different encounter by another woman who anoints Jesus, and her name was Mary Magdalene.  Pope Gregory had absolutely no basis to put this burden on Mary Magdalene.  Mary Magdalene simply had the misfortune of showing up first in the list of women that Luke names immediately after this, in chapter 8, verses 1-3.

Mary Magdalene was literally in the wrong place at that wrong time on the page when church leaders were looking for someone to pin this story on.   That and the fact that Luke says Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene seemed to seal her fate in church history.  At least in Pope Gregory’s mind, that meant she must have been the prostitute whom Luke was describing in the previous chapter.

Well, given the cloudy and slanderous history behind naming this woman, I’m choosing today to call her by another name entirely.  For today, I’m naming her, “Roxanne”.  We’ll pretend this is Luke’s account of a prostitute named “Roxanne”, as later immortalized by the British rock band, The Police, and sung by Sting.

Released in 1978, “Roxanne” went on to be among The Police’s biggest hits.  It’s a woeful ballad of a young man who’s in love with a young woman, Roxanne.   But, Roxanne is a prostitute.  Sting sings her name out with a despairing cry, “Roxanne…

I loved you since I knew ya/I wouldn’t talk down to ya

I have to tell you just how I feel/I won’t share you with

another boy.

Roxanne you don’t have to put on the red light.

Those days are over you don’t have to sell you body

to the night.

Roxanne you don’t have to wear that dress tonight,

Walk the streets for money you don’t care if it’s wrong

or if it’s right.

That’s Luke’s Roxanne, putting on whatever that first century version of the red light might be, selling herself to any man who’d want her body for his use.

There’s nothing of love in prostitution.  There’s no Julia Roberts and Richard Gere “Pretty Woman” kinds of prostitute who gets rescued by her super-rich, knight in shining armor.  There are simply prostitutes, women and men, underage girls and underage boys, being brutalized by the pimps who sell them and the men who pay for them.

Beyond that fact of Luke’s Roxanne, that she most likely was a prostitute, we just don’t know much else about her.  But, what we can glean of Luke’s Roxanne are these two tantalizing details.

First, Roxanne possesses a small, alabaster flask of expensive ointment, most likely a kind of perfume.  Alabaster was a soft stone which an artisan could carve and hollow out to hold such precious liquids.   Then, the artisan would seal the neck of the flask in such a way that its owner would have to break the flask to get to the contents.

These alabaster flasks were precious heirlooms mothers would pass down to daughters, often as the daughter’s dowry for when she should be married.  It was like having money tucked away under the mattress, held in reserve should she and her husband ever face the desperate need for money.  Only then would an alabaster flask be sold or traded away.

How in the world had Luke’s Roxanne come to hold such a precious commodity?  Was it her dowry given to her own mother that she’d held on to out of sentimental reasons?   Perhaps some wayward husband had taken his own wife’s alabaster flask of precious perfume to trade it away to Roxanne for his own night’s pleasure?

However she got it,  Roxanne realized that one day men would no longer pay good money for her services, so she’s held on to the flask as a kind of rainy day fund.   If this little alabaster flask could talk, the tale it would tell of hope and of heartache, of betrayal perhaps, and most certainly, this flask would tell a story of personal ruin.  That’s the first tantalizing detail.

The second tantalizing facet of Luke’s account is why Roxanne is there this day in Simon the Pharisee’s home.  The reason is this:  for the first time in a long time, for the first time perhaps ever in her life, Roxanne finally had met a man who loved her.   She had met Jesus.

We don’t know when or how their paths had crossed.  But when Roxanne had met Jesus, her whole way of life—the bad, desperate choices she had made, the wrongs others had perpetrated against her—all of it fell away from her.

Yes, Jesus knew exactly who and what Roxanne was the moment they’d met.  But, what Simon the Pharisee did not know and could not comprehend, was this:  in their earlier encounter, Jesus had not tallied up Roxanne’s sins.  He had not weighed the sins against her on some scale of righteousness.  Jesus was not concerned to eyed Roxanne over to see if she might yet be some value to him.  Jesus never examined her for even the briefest moment.  No examination was needed.

In the moment she encountered Jesus, Roxanne knew instantly that her sins carried no weight with Jesus at all.  If anything, it was as if her wrongs, her despair, her abuse, served only to measure the fullness of Jesus’ love for her just because he loved her.  In Jesus’ presence, there was no sin left in this woman, and she knew it, because she met God in Jesus, and God forgave her.

Of course, Simon knew none of this.  What Simon the Pharisee knew of others was what he could measure by the yardstick of righteousness and of wrong.  Simon valued his own life and the lives of others by what each earned and possessed, and by what each owed and must someday repay.  Therein lay the balance of one’s standing before God and before Simon.

“Simon,” says Jesus to his host, “let me help you see this woman as I see her.”  So, Jesus tells his little parable in verse 41 and 42.  It’s a parable designed just for Simon.  There were two debtors.   The one debtor owes only fifty, while the other debtor owes five hundred.

But, when their creditor forgives them both their debts, “Simon, which debtor will love the creditor more.”  Simon responds to Jesus with an expression that roughly translates, “well…duh!”  “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.  And Jesus said to him, you have judged rightly.” 4

“Now,” says Jesus in verse 44, “do you see this woman?”  Examine her through the lens of the story I just told you.  Do you see how she has welcomed me into her life, as though she were a hostess welcoming me into her own home?  Do you see this alabaster flask, Simon?  Do you realize what this means for this woman who has sold her body over and over for money, yet who now offers me this particular gift?

Whatever misbegotten claims or outright crimes had attached themselves to this alabaster flask that Roxanne carried around with her, when Jesus had looked upon her, it was as if the flask itself was restored to its original purpose and purity right along with her.  The flask of pure ointment now became Roxanne’s own dowry to give to the one in whom she would entrust her life, her love, and her soul.

There was more to Jesus’ little parable than just the simple lesson Simon first saw.  Consider again the facts as Jesus laid them out.  Though their debts were miles apart when measured out and weighed, in effect, their debts were exactly the same:  neither the one who owed fifty nor the one who owed five hundred could repay his debt.

Each one’s only hope lay in the creditor who held both their fates in his hands, either to prosecute or to forgive.  Their creditor chooses to forgive and to release them from the consequences of their debts.   Their creditor restores to them their freedom when he could have condemned them both to the debtor’s prison.  Both debtors should have come from the presence of their creditor with equal gratitude in their hearts and praise on their lips.

Simon the Pharisee, if he had seen Jesus with the insight of one whose sins were forgiven, if he had seen Jesus with the insight, for example, of Roxanne, well, let’s just say he would have given Jesus a far more generous welcome at his table than what he’d actually provided.

We sin, and others sin against us.  Some of us manage far better than others under the weight of those sins, by whomever and however those sins entered into our experience.  But, some of us don’t manage at all well; we break under sins’ burden, and sin quickly becomes a burden that gets compounded over and over again, like a bad debt compounding usurious amounts of interest month by month, year by year.

We who manage our lives well, indeed we seem very well, don’t we?  And those who don’t, well, we know who they are and how to avoid them.  At least, I know I do.

But, Jesus doesn’t avoid them, just as Jesus doesn’t avoid us.   The question is how we see ourselves when Jesus does encounter us.  Because, how we see Jesus seeing us, makes all the difference in how we see others, especially in how we see others whom we know have made a royal mess of things.

The shining example in this little story as Luke tells it turns out to be the one who clearly knows what it means to be forgiven.  May our life’s joy in Christ match more closely the joy of a forgiven prostitute, who for the moment is named Roxanne, and not the apparent righteousness of a Pharisee who was named Simon.

________________________________

1BAG, idou, p. 371a.

2Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8.

3Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, I-IX, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28 (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Co, Inc., 1981) p. 688 n.37

4 epolamvano, Geldenhuys notes the word indicates “’an air of supercilious indifference’”, Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979) p.236 n.8.

Are you Qualified, Jesus?

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 5, 2016.
Taken from Luke 7:19-23

John in Prison

An elderly man lay in his upstairs bedroom, awaiting death.  The doctors had done all they could, until it finally was obvious there was nothing more to be done.  The man and his wife agreed he would be more comfortable at home, in his own bed, for his final days on earth, which seemed to be few, at this point.

As the man lay there, at death’s door, he could hear his wife busy downstairs in the kitchen.  Soon there came wafting up the stairs the aroma of the fresh baked brownies that his wife had just baked and taken out of the oven.  Throughout these last years, the man had been on a very strict diet.  He could not remember the last time he had enjoyed a fresh baked brownie.  He thought, “What the heck, what’s it matter now?  I’m going to get me a brownie.”

So, the man pulls himself up out of his bed.  He steadies himself, and then bracing himself, he stumbles over to a chair, where he stops.  He holds onto the chair as again he steadies himself.  He then makes it over to the bedroom door, where once again, he leans and catches his breath.  And, on he goes, out into the hallway, pulling himself along until he reaches the top of the stairs.

Honestly, he thinks, “This may be it…this may take every last bit of life left in me, but I’m going to make it at least long enough for one last bite of a hot, fresh baked brownie.”  So, he sits himself down on the top step and slowly, ever so slowly, eases himself down, step by step by step.  Along the way, he stops to listen for his wife.  He doesn’t want to alarm her or frighten his sweet wife who’s been taking such pains to care for him.

The man finally reaches the bottom step where he can look into the kitchen.  Sure enough, there on the counter, sit the brownies, cut in nice large squares that she’s laid out on a serving platter.  He looks and listens; no sign of his wife, she’s gone somewhere else in the house.  Now’s his chance; for him, it is literally now or never to enjoy one last brownie.

Somehow, he pulls himself up to standing, he stumbles across the hallway and through the kitchen door.  He dare not stop until he’s at the kitchen counter, where he leans and catches perhaps his last breath on this earth.  He picks up that warm square of chocolate deliciousness and opens his mouth to shove it in.

Suddenly, his wife is by his side.  She reaches out and smacks his hand but hard.  “Put that brownie down this instant!  I made those for the funeral!”

John the Baptist is facing down his own death.  Not from the comfort of his bed, mind you, but from a barren cell in King Herod’s prison. (Luke 3:19-20).  While John the Baptist awaits the inevitable moment when Herod will indeed execute him, John considers his cousin, Jesus.  Like our poor husband craving for one last brownie, John the Baptist desperately wants a sign from Jesus.1

Jesus, whom John himself baptized, whom John realized was the Anointed One of God and the One to whom John has directed his own followers; Jesus, for whom John did his fiercest preaching to prepare the people to follow Jesus:

“You nest of snakes!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit that proves your repentance….Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the tree!  Bear good fruit or you’ll be chopped down and thrown into the fire!”  (Matthew 3:7-10)

“I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is on his way…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand; he’s here, to clear his threshing floor…to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  (Luke 3:16-17)

It is so going to be a “turn or burn” spectacle now that Jesus, God’s Anointed has shown up!  John had expected a holy blood-bath of epic proportions.

How John, so near death, craved at least one last sign that Jesus was indeed that Anointed One of God!  Had he gotten it right; that he’d pointed his followers to the true righteous teacher of God.  But, had he?  Had John given up his own fierce firebrand that burned with righteous rage, handing it over to the wrong man?

Amidst all the signs that Jesus performed, John wants just this one last sweet, burning bite, to reassure him that Jesus is qualified to wear the mantle of God’s Anointed.  So, he sends two of his own disciples to find Jesus and to ask him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Twice, Luke lays that question out for us to contemplate.  Word for word, Luke gives it to us, from the mouth of John to his disciples and then immediately from the mouths of his disciples to Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  (Verses 19 & 20)

That’s an awkward question to ask of Jesus.  But, apparently, according to Luke, that is the question we each need to ask and answer for ourselves.  That’s why he records it not once, but twice for us his readers:  has Jesus turned out to be something other than what you expected?  Has your faith that Jesus is the one…your Savior, your Lord, the fulfillment of what you expected of God…has that turned out to be correct, or should you look elsewhere?

It’s a shocking thing to consider, I’ll grant you.  Even Jesus understands the shock value of John’s question.  In verse 23, Jesus turns to all who are there, and to us, because now we are there, too.  Jesus says, “…blessed is whoever who is not scandalized in me.”  Our English word, “scandalize”, comes straight over from the Greek word that Luke reports Jesus saying.  To be scandalized, to be shocked at, to be deeply offended by.2

“Has Jesus turned out to be someone or something other than what you’d hoped for, and, if so, should you look elsewhere?”  Apparently, for many a baptized believer in Jesus, the answer is “yes.”  And, they have turned to look somewhere else for whatever it was that first drew them in faith to Jesus.  They made a start with Jesus, but they have since turned away from following Jesus.

It’s a really complex thing to answer, “Why have baptized believers started off with Jesus but have since turned away from him?”  Maybe if they were in the very presence of Jesus it wouldn’t be that way.  We’re there with Jesus, because Luke calls us as his readers in our religious imaginations to put ourselves there and to hear this twice-asked question.

But, we’re not really there, are we?  We aren’t in the bodily presence of Jesus.  So, did these folks have an advantage over us in answering John’s question because they were physically with Jesus?  Doesn’t seem so; John had been with Jesus, had observed Jesus’ ministry, but it doesn’t allay John’s doubts.

So, this question weighs on John’s conscience.  It’s weighing on the consciences of those people there, whom John baptized and who are following Jesus because John told them that’s what they should do (see verse 29).

Now, Luke wants this question to weigh on our consciences, too, in concern for our fellow professed Christians, certainly, but first in concern for ourselves…how has Jesus, if not scandalizing us, how has he at least disappointed us so that he no longer qualifies to hold the preeminent place in our love?

For John the Baptist, it is not the fact that he is facing imminent martyrdom that upsets him.  What upsets him is the thought that he is about to give his life for the wrong cause and for the wrong person.  John wants to know this from Jesus:  while there is still time, dear cousin, before I lay my head on the executioner’s chopping block, should I point my disciples in a different direction?

Well, Jesus does not let John the Baptist off so easily.  He does not give John the quick satisfaction of a clear “yes” or “no”.  What Jesus expects of John the Baptist is exactly the same thing Jesus expects of you and me.  Jesus tells John to consider Jesus’ Gospel, to measure Jesus’ deeds, and to answer the question for himself as we must for ourselves: is Jesus still for me the right one of God, the one preeminent in my love, the one for whom I offer my life’s witness.

That is the literal meaning of the word “martyr”.  The word “martyr” means “witness”:  will I continue to give witness of Jesus and his Gospel, by word, by action, by dedicating myself as a living witness.  Would I be a witness of Jesus even to the point, as John will soon do, as Luke’s first readers sometimes were called on to do, to witness of Jesus by dying the martyr’s death.

Man, that turned dark in a hurry, didn’t it?  So, let’s just catch our breath and back away from the frightening specter of martyrdom.  That’s not really where Jesus was headed with this anyway.  Instead, Jesus moved everyone along by this interesting thing he does next.

Jesus doesn’t bash John the Baptist there to the crowd because of John’s question.  Jesus in no way feels the need to diminish John the Baptist at all.  Instead, he lifts up John the Baptist before the people.  He invites them to consider the heart of John’s message.  Then, in verse 28, Jesus makes a crucial pivot by saying this:  “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John…”

Notice how Jesus set this up:  “among those born of women”.  Well, that pretty well covers the whole of humanity, doesn’t it?  After all, how else does one go about getting born?

We also may get born of the Holy Spirit, don’t we, if we enter the kingdom of God?  It’s that whole conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus; that the Gospel of John records for us in John chapter three. (John 3:1-8)

Back to Luke 7:28, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John, yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”  We have come into the kingdom of God, this unseen yet eternal community of God’s beloved children. Jesus’ Gospel is all about being part of that community, entering it, living it, anticipating its fulfillment.

John the Baptist was right about Jesus; he just didn’t know exactly how he was right about Jesus.  John was looking at his own works, his own fiery message, and he couldn’t get them to line up with Jesus’ works and message, and it confused him.

Perhaps we’ve wondered about Jesus and our allegiance to Jesus and whether to keep going in active witness of Jesus.  Whatever the cause of our bewilderment:  we were right about Jesus, even if we don’t really know exactly how we were right.

This “kingdom of God business” is not easy always to understand, if ever.  But, the weakest among us in any way—whether in faith, knowledge, obedience—we still are so greatly valued and esteemed in God’s love.

The takeaway for today is at least this:  Let’s help each other always to grasp this basic truth about the kingdom of God:  the weakest is valued as much, and more, as the strongest.  Let’s help those, our sisters and brothers who’ve grown weak, who’ve somehow forgotten and wandered on to other paths.  Our ministry is not that of fire and threat; ours is the ministry of the Anointed Shepherd of God, come to gather the flock safely into God’s fold, the weak and the strong.

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1Exegetical notes are from Joseph A. Fitzmyer, ­The Gospel According to Luke, I-IX, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28, Double Day & Co., 1982.

2 BAG, skandalizo, p. 760a.

Ruth: Naomi’s Do-Over Story

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 29, 2016.
Taken from Ruth 1: 11-18

Ruth And Naomi
Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes, “Look at the birds of the air:  they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them….Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  (Matthew 6:26, 28-29)

“Yes, Jesus,” we might very well reply, “but have you seen the bird as it pecks along over frozen ground looking for food or as it sits huddled on a branch, enduring a cold, drenching rain with no understanding that it could very well not survive?”

“You yourself, Jesus, you acknowledge that these lilies of the field have but a brief moment of glory in the sun before being mowed down and “thrown into the oven”.  (Matthew 6:30).   Yet, you tell us to take comfort in the lessons we learn from them?   You tell us God has arranged for all to be well for them?   You call on us to learn from them lessons of God meant to allay our fears and calm our anxieties?

Who is this God, then, who with such utter abandon adorns creation with beauty only to leave that same beautiful creation to ruin on the whims of nature and the foolishness of mortals?  What should we say, then, about God?

These are the hard questions the Book of Ruth asks.  Hard questions to which, interestingly, God never once replies.   Nowhere in the Book of Ruth does God speak a word.  There is no prophet to declare, “Behold!  Thus sayeth the Lord”.  There is no burning bush in the valley, and no theophany on the mountain top.   There is no priest culling the truth of sacred text nor sage ordained to offer wisdom in God’s name.  In Ruth, there are, instead, only the birds and the lilies themselves to tell their story.

We commonly call this the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman.  But, it’s not just Ruth’s story.  Ruth literally marries into this story, which is the story of Naomi and Naomi’s husband and their two sons.  The opening verses of chapter one sets the stage for us.  The time is in the ancient and early days of Israel, long before the tribes are united under king and nation.1

Hear the story:

“…there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem migrated to Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.   The man’s name was Elimelech and the name of his wife was Naomi…they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem.”  (1:1-2)

Names are important in this story.  Elimelech and Naomi are Ephrathites from Bethlehem.  Ephraph is what their town used to be called before later settlers renamed it “Bethlehem”.  In other words, Elimelech and Naomi were from one of the old established families there in Bethlehem.   They were like the FFV here in Virginia:  they were the Lees and the Byrds and the Washingtons of their time and place.   They were Ephrathites, and you best not forget it!

Elimelech’s name means “God is King”.  Naomi’s name means “Pleasant” or “Beautiful”.  But, before this first chapter moves very far along, Naomi will have cause to wonder exactly what kind of king is this God of hers.  Her own name, Naomi…Pleasant, will sound like ridicule to her own ears.  Her own given name will soon be too painful to pronounce, so much so, that she rejects it!

Naomi changes her name to reflect the harsh reality life will tattoo in the deep lines furrowed across her own forehead:  “Mara”, which means “Bitter”.  “Call me, ‘Mara’,” she will come to say, for that is who I am.  I am Bitter.” (1:20)  I said, “life” will tattoo that name across her forehead; but that’s not actually what Naomi says did it to her; she says, God has done this to her.

Even the name of their village, “Bethlehem”, turns rancid in Naomi’s mouth.  “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread”, but there is no bread to be found in Bethlehem nor anywhere around their beloved land.  There is a long famine which compels Elimelech and Naomi and their sons to seek a better life in the neighboring country of Moab.

Think of Naomi and her family as one of the families that suffered through Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.  Louisiana is devastated; homes, businesses, whole communities left in ruins.  So, many simply get up and leave the ruins behind.   In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, many families migrated over into Texas.   They just end up staying in Texas.  They start over.  They get work in Texas, they get the kids back in school, some are even able to buy a house!

You know, 2005, 2006, 2007:  anybody could get a home mortgage, couldn’t they?  What collateral?  What down-payment?  You’ve got some kind of job, you’ve got a house!  What a country!   What a life!  Katrina may have turned out to be the best thing to happen to a lot of people.

Picture Elimelech and Naomi that way.   They’re devastated by Katrina.   They leave New Orleans and migrate to Houston.  Elimelech and his sons get jobs, they get a mortgage and buy a house big enough not for Mom and Dad, but even with enough room for the sons and their young wives.  Sure, 2005 was bad.  But, things started to turn around…2006, 2007…looks like Naomi and her family have landed on their feet.

Then, comes 2008.  The economy starts tanking.  Elimelech and the boys lose their jobs.  The housing bubble bursts.   Banks collapse.  Real estate values plummet.   Mortgage companies start foreclosing on houses, right and left.  Families literally are thrown out on to the street.

Suicides, divorces, homelessness, wide-spread confusion that only the oldest of the old can remember living through.

That’s about how it goes for Naomi as, first, her husband dies, and then both of her sons die, leaving her with no money, no way to work, and two young daughters-in-law in exactly the same predicament along with her.  So bad does it become for them, Naomi can come up with no solution other than to move back to New Orleans.   Maybe she can move into one of those FEMA trailer camps.

Naomi simply can’t ask her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to make that trek with her, this old broken beggar woman crossing that barren desert land.  It is indeed for Naomi, a terrible walk of shame.

Orpah sees the hard but necessary choice before her.  With great heartbreak, Orpah kisses her mother-in-law goodbye and returns to her own family.  But, the other daughter-in-law simply can’t do it.  Ruth pledges herself to her mother-in-law, much in same way she had pledged herself to Naomi’s son:

“Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” (1:16-17)

Ruth’s pledge of fidelity to Naomi and to Naomi’s God is all the more daring when you consider what Naomi has to say about God.  Naomi has just then told Ruth and Orpah, “my life is bitter, terribly bitter, because God…Yahweh…has gone against me for some reason…God has slapped me down hard!  Go!  Get far away from me and save yourselves!”  (1:13, paraphrased).  But, Ruth persists, and so these two destitute widows make their way back to Bethlehem.

When Naomi and Ruth show up in Bethlehem, verses 19-21 of chapter 1 tell us that it causes quite a stir.  The women of the town see Naomi, and they whisper and they talk and they question, “Is this Naomi?  Is this Miss Pleasant, Miss FFV Beautiful-Fancy Pants?”  Well, Naomi puts a stop to that right away.  “Do not ever again utter that name to my face!  My name from now on is Mara, ‘Bitter’, because the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.   I went away full, but Yahweh has brought me back empty….Yahweh has afflicted me and the Almighty has brought me to ruin.”

Again, names tell the story in this little book.  Mara not only renames herself, she begins addressing God by a different name, too.  Up until now, Naomi has addressed God as a daughter of the covenant, so she uses God’s covenant name, “Yahweh”.  But, now, she starts calling God by the name, “Shaddai”.  We most often translate the name, “Shaddai”, as “Almighty”.  But the name can as easily be read, “the Destroyer”.2  This is how Mara means it:  “God has destroyed my life, and I am bitter!”

Why has God done this to me?  I don’t know…I don’t know anything my husband and I have done other than try to make the best decisions we could make in the face of the natural disaster of that famine back those many years ago.  Why has God done this to me?  I can only answer with the absolute truth:  my arms are too short to box with God, and God has beat the daylights out of me.  Am I bitter about it?   You bet I am!

Well, Ruth knows, even bitter people have to eat.  Her mother-in-law is a broken woman.  It will fall to Ruth to support them, so Ruth offers to do the only thing she knows to do.  She and Naomi have just happened to come back to Bethlehem during the harvest season, so Ruth asks Naomi’s permission to go to the fields and glean.  Gleaning was not day work done to earn hourly wages you collect at the end of the day.  Gleaning was going on the public dole; it was ancient welfare.

The law required that landowners leave some of their crops unharvested at the edges of their fields.  The destitute could come and pick over the remains in order to feed themselves.  It was a flat-out tax on the productive citizens, taking money out of their pockets in order to feed those who produced nothing, for whatever reason.

As you can imagine, the landowners did not like it one bit.  Whatever they left unharvested would be the poorest of the crop.  They would not provide water nor shade nor food nor any other accommodation that might encourage beggars to come work their fields.  They turned a blind eye to how their own men would molest the women who gleaned.  (see Boaz’s own admission to this, in 2:9, 15-16)

Now, even though I know better, I always picture Ruth on this romantic outing into the countryside, pretty much like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”.   It’s a bright Fall day.  Ruth has her hair tied up in kerchief; she’s dressed in peasant’s dress, carrying a basket on her hip, a smile on her face, and a song in her heart.  Of course, that is utter nonsense.  Ruth went out early each morning knowing she was putting herself in a hard and dangerous predicament just hoping to get enough for her and Naomi to eat one more day.

As it so happens, Ruth stumbles into the field of a man named Boaz.  It turns out that Boaz actually is a rich relative of Naomi’s.   We also learn in chapter 2, verse 11, that Boaz already knows about Naomi and her daughter-in-law returning to Bethlehem.   Apparently, though, Boaz had felt no pangs of conscience about ignoring his destitute relative and her foreign daughter-in-law.  Until, that is, Boaz gets a look at this foreign born young woman who’s attached herself to Naomi.

Boaz comes out to inspect his fields and to see how the harvest is going.  He looks out and sees Ruth gleaning among the other poor folk.  Suddenly, Boaz finds—shall we say—a sudden infusion of kindness welling up in his old bachelor’s heart.   Which, is where our little story suddenly takes a romantic turn.

Ruth runs home that evening to Naomi.  Her hands are full of grain, and her heart is full of good news.  “Naomi!  You won’t believe who I met today.  It was the owner of the field, Boaz, and he and I really seemed to get along just great!”

I can picture Naomi smacking herself in the forehead as she realizes, of course, Boaz!  My long lost, rich cousin Boaz!  This is very good news to Naomi, because Naomi also knows about a certain law that says, if a man dies without a male heir, then the dead man’s male next of kin is obligated to marry her and to try and sire a male descendent for his dead relative.

Naomi realizes that this all more than just good luck.  Ruth choosing to stay with her; them coming back to Bethlehem just in time for the harvest, Ruth happening upon Boaz’s field?  Naomi hears herself uttering a prayer she never ever expected to pray again, in chapter 2, verse 20, “Blessed be he by the Lord, Yahweh, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!”  Naomi jumps into action:  she preps Ruth, dressing her up, coaching her what to do and what to say in order to activate that particular law.  There are rituals to go through to get this sort of arrangement settled.  You can read all about them in chapters 3 and 4

Just to quickly summarize, Boaz rolls over in the middle of the night and awakens to discover lovely Ruth there with him.  Ruth tells him, it’s time to do your duty and I’m ready and willing.  Boaz, never the fool, and at least this time, not slow on the uptake, takes up Ruth on her offer.  That’s chapter three.   There’s some legal haggling with another male relative who has to relinquish his first dibs on Ruth.  That gets settled in the first part of chapter 4.

All of which is to say, Boaz gets it done.  He and Ruth are married.  Then, we’re told in chapter 4, verse 13, “the Lord, Yahweh, gave her conception, and she bore a son.”  But, that’s not the end of the story.  There is one more scene, the final scene, to be played out before this story is finished.  And it is not Ruth’s scene at all.  It is Naomi’s.

The scene opens in chapter 4, verse 14.  The curtain pulls back with Naomi holding her newborn grandson, who at this point remains unnamed.  The women of Bethlehem once again surround this grandmother, who at this point, you’ll recall, still is renamed “Mara”.   But, no more.  In verse 17, the women proclaim, “A son has been born to Naomi”.  No longer is she to be called “Mara”—the Bitter One—but she is once again “Naomi”—the Pleasant, Beautiful One.

The baby whom the women proclaim as Naomi’s son, they now give the name “Obed”, which means “worshipper”.  Our story concludes with the narrator telling us that Obed will be the grandfather of David.  Which means, of course, that Naomi will become the great, great grandmother of the greatest king over God’s people.

And many, many generations later, another descendent of Naomi’s will enter into the streets of Bethlehem, poor and very tired.  There will be an older man with his young betrothed wife, where they too will experience the birth of their son.  In Bethlehem, the “House of Bread”, will born a child who will later be called, the “Bread of Life”, but who for the moment will simply be named, “Jesus”, meaning, “he will save”.

Naomi’s story presents the very same God who is with us, the God Who Saves, not the God Who Destroys.  Although, that is what Naomi had come to believe.  Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons had made their own decisions in the face of harsh, trying circumstances.  There seems to have been a brief reprieve, when things went well, and it seemed well for the sons to marry and to begin their own families.

But, then, it got worse.  Naomi’s life turned hellish and destructive and despairing.  Did God do that to Naomi?  She thought so at the time, and she complained quite plainly about God’s treatment as she saw it.  But, God did not strike her down, nor curse her.  Famine, dislocations, and death struck her down and left her bitter, but not God.

In her bitterness, Naomi could not see that already God was working to restore her and to rescue her from bitterness.   Much as a mother bird might shelter her young, God embraced this very hurt and damaged daughter of the covenant.  God restored Naomi and gave her a new life and a place in God’s saving work for others.

This is God, as we have come to know God through that much later offspring of Naomi, who is Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, the Bread of Life meant to feed us all.  Where ever we have traveled, what ever harshness has left us embittered, God is with us though we do not know it, laying before us a path to new life through God’s gracious gift of the child of salvation for us, too.  Jesus is also our Bread of Life, for the journey.

_________________________________

 

1All exegetical notes are from Arthur E. Cundall and Leon Morris, Judges and Ruth, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman ed. (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1968) pp. 217 ff.

2Brown, Driver, Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1979) shadat p. 994a

Stardust, Plus

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 15, 2016.
Taken from Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-32


Let’s begin with a little mental exercise this morning.  I think it will be fun.  I’m going to rattle off a list of names in no particular order. Your job will be to identify what they all have in common.

It’s a list of names that I’ve just pulled off the top of my head that I know.  It’s by no means exhaustive.  The other thing I need to say is that all these names are western and northern.   There are vast swaths of other cultures that I’ve omitted, but that’s out of my own ignorance, of other cultures, O.K.?  It shows the limits of my own education, and my own failings of intellectual curiosity.

So, if you’ve got some names from Asian culture or Middle Eastern or African or one of the Americas other than North America, by all means, plug those names in…it’s still work.

So, with that upfront mea culpa, here we go.  What do all these names have in common?

Monet…Georgia O’Keefe…Erma Bombeck…John Steinbeck…
Pearl Jam…Hank Williams…Louis Sullivan…Roy Orbison…God…
Gregory Hines…Merle Haggard…Nina Simone…Sam Maloof…
Thelonius Monk…Jesus of Nazareth…Jesus the Christ…
Alice in Chains…Degas…Andy Warhol

That’s round one; are you getting the idea?  What do all these folks have in common?  A few more, and then I’ll quit.

Duke Ellington…Frank Sinatra…Janis Joplin…Frank Lloyd Wright…
John Williams…Patsy Cline…Christopher Wren…Earl Warren…
Antonia Scalia…The Artic Monkeys…God…Grandma Moses…
Jack White…Joni Mitchell…The Holy Spirit…
Thomas Jefferson…Merle Haggard…I.M. Pei…Mary Cassatt…

O.K., I’ll stop now.  So, all these names, plus the names you’ve thought of, what do all of these folks have in common?

They have in common at least this:  each one discovered his or her own way of seeing life.  From the mash up of experiences and perceptions and distortions and genius that made them, they in turn crafted for themselves a unique perspective on the world.  They each found a medium which they mastered—painting, music, the law, clay, wood, words, dance, their own bodies.  They used that medium to get what they saw within themselves out into the world so the rest of us could see it.

We know their names because they helped enough of us to see what we ourselves could not see, of life, especially of this bit of life called humanity.

The fancy word for expressing one’s personal way of seeing is “aesthetic”:  each of these, had his or her own aesthetic.  As I said, aesthetic is a fancy word.  It’s not a word we’re prone to use much in church.  In fact, we may be kind of suspicious of such words and the people who use them.  So, let’s acknowledge that suspicion up front.

The second suspicion to acknowledge is that among those many names I named, there were a few that seemed out of place.  You know the Sesame Street song, “One of These Things (is Not Like the Others)”?

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song? 1

Among all those other names, I dropped in these names, in this order: “God”, “Jesus of Nazareth”, “Jesus the Christ”, “God”, “The Holy Spirit”.  For the purposes of this list, are these names not like the others?

Does God have a unique perspective about life which is God’s own?  Has God masterfully made use of a medium to get that perspective on life out where the rest of us can see it, especially that little bit of life called humanity?  So, couldn’t we say, God has an aesthetic?  If so, what is God’s aesthetic?

From what our reading in Proverbs says, God’s aesthetic seems to be Wisdom.  But this is no wisdom of the “stitch in time saves nine” variety of wisdom.  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  “The early bird catches the worm.”  “What goes up must come down.”  “Let sleeping dogs lie.”  “Don’t be surprised if you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas”

There is wisdom in such sayings.  Maybe they’re sort of like droplets of water sprayed up off the surface of Wisdom’s ocean.  But the sayings are mere surface.

The writer, here in Proverbs chapter 8, is reflecting upon creation and sees something beneath the surface.  He sees a liveliness beyond the obvious.  There is evidence of what he can only describe by the one word, “delight”.  It seems as though the Maker took great delight in the making of this world.  More than that, it’s as if the Maker actually infused delight into the media of creation:  the stars, the sun, the way the sun plays across the horizon, delight contained from within the largest mountains down to the mere “bits of soil” as verses 25-26 put it.

But, what makes it so lively is this, says this sage:  it’s as though creation itself is responding with its own delight offered back to the Maker.  It’s as if there’s a grand duet of delight being sung between unseen partners…a dance…perhaps even a romance.

This writer is no idiot.  He knows as well as anyone, dirt is dirt, rock is rock.  The same wind that blows his hair askew atop his head is the same wind that moves the trees and shrubs that sit firmly rooted in the soil.

He knows, Water is water.  It’s necessary for life, be it vegetable or animal; it’s wet.  He knows that too much water can ruin the farmer’s work just as easily as too little water.  He knows the water distorts the light somehow.

Yet, there’s more at work.  There is laughter in the dirt, the rock, the wind, and the water.  There is joy, as though shared between old friends, or perhaps it is love, after all?

The writer, here in the verses of chapter 8, somehow has to capture what he perceives God showing him, what he experiences so vividly yet which lie beyond mere touch, or fragrance; beyond the majesty of sights and sounds and the flavors of the stuff of this world.  For him, it is as though a far greater sage, a woman, were calling out through creation itself, inviting him to hear and understand her story, so he can tell her story to others.

Her story of how it is that she has come from before time and place ever were, to be here, now, in his own time and place, speaking to him.  He names her Wisdom

In beginning,” you know, says she, “the Lord created me….at the first, before beginning even with the earth.”  There were no depths of the sea, nor mountains; no horizon was in sight, because there were no heavens to separate what was above from what was below; there was no up or down:  “First,” she says, “the Lord created me.

“So,” says Wisdom, “there I was beside him, to begin, like a master crafter, and I was the Maker’s daily delight.  And I, rejoicing always before him, rejoiced in the Maker’s world as together we brought it life, especially delighting in the children of our making, the human race.

Now, my children, listen to me…,” Lady Wisdom says, in verse 32.  Have we forgotten how to listen to Wisdom in creation?  Does Wisdom’s song fall wasted, misunderstood, mislaid and finally lost to us, like some great work of art tucked away in the attic of an abandoned house or a lyric composition, or a play-write’s drama that sits idle in the drawer of a piece of furniture, an unwanted heirloom that no family member cared to take?

Should we even be taking time in a Christian worship service to speak of something so spiritual in creation itself?  Isn’t this all just a bunch of “woo-woo”?  Is “woo-woo” a term you’re familiar with?  “Woo-woo” is a derogatory term, defined this way:

adj. concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey.2

Now, there’s the curse of death in Christian circles, to term something as “new agey”.  That’s right!  By golly, we want a rational faith; we want a scientific faith, not a “woo-woo” faith!

As I was first going through the lectionary suggestions for this Sunday and read this, Proverbs chapter 8, almost immediately there popped into my head the refrain from the 1970 song, “Woodstock”, the rock version by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  Surely you know the refrain to “Woodstock”?  Let’s sing it, why don’t we?

We are stardust/Billion-year-old carbon/
We are golden/Caught in the devil’s bargain/
And we’ve got to get ourselves/
Back to the garden. 3

 I guess we might call that “woo-wooey”, too, if it weren’t for the Bible references to the Devil and the Garden of Eden and then the scientific references Joni Mitchell put in there when she wrote the lyrics.

I’m all for us Christians knowing at least something about the science of how this creation in which we live came about and continues.  We need it.  A solid, scientific understanding of the Universe is, literally, what keeps our faith from turning into one big mess of “woo-woo”, whether it’s New Agey woo-woo over here or the Tim LaHaye “Left Behind” woo-woo over there!

Because creation is the backdrop for all kinds of good Christian theology, from Genesis, to Proverbs, to John’s Gospel, throughout the writings of the Apostle Paul and ending up in the Book of Revelation.  Good, solid theology and Christian practice is grounded in creation.  It behooves us to understand it.

I strongly recommend to you Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of the Universe.  There are all kinds of scientists who’ve tried to write books for the general reader, and they fail miserably at it.  Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy do a pretty good job, but, for my money, you can’t beat Bill Bryson’s book.

What you’ll learn is that, in fact, Joni Mitchell got it right:  we are stardust, billion-year-old carbon and other stuff that burst out of a nothingness some 13.8 billion years ago.  All of the energy, all of the elements of matter, out of which we are made, popped out as if from nothing, per scientists who know what they’re talking about.

Lawrence Krauss is a physicist who knows what he’s talking about.  He tried to explain all this for the general reader in his book, A Universe Out of Nothing:  Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.  I’ve attempted to read it, and I have to say, “sorry, Larry, but I’m not sure you know any actual ‘general readers’.”  So, start with Bill Bryson.

If we want to have a sound theology and a right practice of our faith, we need to learn something of the medium in which God chose to work.  Because, it is through this medium of matter and energy that God worked out God’s own unique aesthetic, of which the sage of Proverb testifies.

It is our calling to continue to testify of God’s delight in this, God’s, creation; it is our calling to help this creation, especially its human family, to voice its delight back to God.

Theologian Matthew Fox argues vigorously that we Christians have become so obsessed with the idea of “original sin” that we’ve completely forgotten about the “original blessing” in creation.4

You know, I often wonder this:  why was it, when Jesus walked into a bar-room full of tax collectors, or when Jesus walked past a street corner where gathered prostitutes, or whenever Jesus came into the sightline of any other groups of people whom the religious termed unclean and unfit for God, why was it they so welcomed Jesus, rabbi that he was?

Was it that in the presence of Jesus, they felt in their souls this primordial delight of the Creator now looking them in the face?  Is that why they flocked after Jesus and hung on his words and welcomed Jesus to their tables?

Do you know what it is to experience judgement, shaming, perhaps deserved condemnation, to experience it all so much so that you start living your life to fit that rejection?  Or, you live your life in such deep fear of that judgment that you bind yourself up:  rigid, buttoned down, excelling at becoming like those whose judgement you seek to prevent?

And, then, you come into the presence of someone who seems to actually welcome you, who delights in you, who embraces you?  Well, then, that’s who you’re going to follow, that’s the group to whom you will pledge your fidelity come what may.

Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of delight.  Jesus called forth the innate delight which the Maker infused within creation itself.  The first generations of Christians quickly seized upon this picture of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and saw there attributes of Jesus.  The Apostle Paul knew these ancient writings as well as anyone.  Paul wove the theme of creation and re-creation as he sought to explain the death and the resurrection of Jesus.

The sage of Proverbs introduces this wisdom collection with this person, Lady Wisdom.  In a very similar way, the Gospel of John introduces the ministry of Jesus with this Prologue read for us earlier of the Living Word of God, who was before creation and through whom came creation and for whom all was created.  Jesus, the Living Aesthetic of God.

Among all those names with which we began, there should be your name and mine.  God calls us to see with God’s own way of seeing, to express God’s aesthetic through the medium of our lives.  God calls us to embrace this world of rock and soil, of wind and water, and most of all, this human race, with God’s delight in it all, and then to help all, flawed though they be, to find delight in God, their Maker and their Redeemer.  We see that way most fully in Jesus the Christ.

We are stardust, plus, the Holy Presence of God’s Delight, who would sing through our voices and live through our bodies, this deep, deep Wisdom of creation.

________________________________

1 http://www.metrolyrics.com/one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others-lyrics-sesame-street.html

2Robert T. Carroll, http://skepdic.com/woowoo.html

3 http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/jonimitchell/woodstock.html

Matthew Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer on Creation Spirituality, (NY:  Tarcher/Putnam, 2000)

The Holy Ghost Transit Authority

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 15, 2016.
Taken from Acts 2:1-21

PentecostDoveFlames-200x200

Can you imagine what it would be like if God had something really exceptional planned for us here today, but we didn’t know God was going to do that most exceptional thing today?   In fact, what if we didn’t know that in exactly three minutes and five seconds from this very moment, God, within God’s own Self—however that happens—God will say, “Holy Spirit…Now!”

And instantly, these walls of brick and concrete turned transparent, from top to bottom, as clear as plate glass.  That would be some kind of event, wouldn’t it?   Traffic would stop; pedestrians would stop; cell phones would come out; videos would be posted; 911 calls would be made.

More than that, what if in that instant that our sanctuary turned transparent, what if God, again within God’s own Self—however that happens—God again says to the Holy Spirit, “O.K., now!”   And, we, sitting in these pews in the midst of a transparent sanctuary, suddenly we ourselves in our bodies turn transparent!

The flesh transparent so that everybody out there could see, not muscle and bone and that wee bit of extra fluff most of us carry, but these folks outside looking on us in the inside, could see the presence of God’s own Spirit within us?  What would that look like?   Maybe it would look as though a bit of fire had settled down upon our heads and had kept right on going, infusing our whole bodies with this flaming brightness and buoyancy.

How would you account for it?   What words could any of us put together that would adequately explain such a phenomenon?

I have to admit that my dear wife hurt my feelings Friday afternoon.  We were driving into town, talking about something, and she accused me of “mansplaining”.  I said, “What?!  I never mansplain anything!”  Karen said, “Oh, yes you do…all the time.”  I said, “Look, dear, maybe you don’t quite understand ‘mansplaining’…here’s what ‘mansplaining’ is, it’s when a man assumes a woman can’t quite get something, and so she needs a man to explain to her in ways that she can understand.  You see?  That’s not something I would do.”   Karen then proceeded to “ladysplain” some things to me.

Well, if God all of a sudden turned these walls transparent, and then God immediately turned us transparent for all the world to see the presence of God aflame within us, I’m pretty sure no amount of “mansplaining” nor “ladysplaining” would do the job.   What we would need is some serious “Spirit-splaining” to happen.

Even our most eloquent attempts to get somebody else to understand what Jesus Christ means to us, will only be us imparting information.  Our words, like bricks and concrete will remain only bricks and concrete, opaque, dense.   The words will be only words, bits of data momentarily shared and then forgotten.

But if our conversations and our words, come out of our humility before God and out of our faith to believe God dwells within us, then some genuine Spirit-splaining will indeed happen.   Pentecost will happen.  Pentecost is a time to chasten our pride and to reorient our souls, that the Word of God may speak once again through us to the end result, as verse 21 says, “That whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved”.

Most of the time I use the Revised Standard Version of the Bible for study and preaching.   But, there are times when it’s hard to beat the King James translation of Scripture.  The 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, a few other memory verses all speak the Scripture better for me in the King James.  This is true in our reading today from Acts, chapter two…the Day of Pentecost.

This particular King James Bible I’m using today is the one my parents gave me when I was a child.   This was the Bible I used right on up until I was 21 or 22 years old. Then, I decided I might try reading a Bible I could actually understand.  That’s when I tried the daring experiment of reading the New International Version.

Reading a Bible you can understand can have some interesting consequences.  I once visited with a couple in their home.  They were in the mid-50’s or so.  The wife had always been very faithful in church and basically would drag her husband with her on Christmas and Easter.  Then, suddenly, here in his later mid-life, the husband experienced something of a spiritual rebirth.

He explained to me and to the other minister visiting with me, that he’d always owned a King James Version Bible.  He could never quite make much sense out of it, but he’d held on to it over the years out of sentimental reasons.  Then, on his most recent birthday, his wife gave him a modern translation of the Bible.

So, to please her, he started reading it and for the first time he said he could understand what he was reading.  He said, “And it scared the h…” and he almost uttered the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks term until he remembered he was talking to a couple of ministers there in his den, and you know how we clergy are just so fragile.  So, he said, “Well, you know what it about scared out of me!”  And what he read changed him.

So, if you do plan on doing something in your spiritual life, by all means go get a Bible that you can at least follow along when you read it.  There is nothing especially holy about the “thee’s” and the “thou’s” and the “begettest’s” of the KJV.   In fact, there’s not even anything especially holy about Greek or Hebrew.   The Greek in the New Testament was the common Greek of the everyday speaker, not the formal classical Greek of the philosophers and poets.1  It certainly was not some sort of special Divine Greek.

There was not anything especially holy about the many languages and dialects which these early believers began shouting out on this Pentecost Day in Acts chapter 2.

What was holy about the languages and the dialects which these Pentecostal Christians were speaking that day was this: they were speaking so that their listeners could understand what they were saying about God. Those words, heard with understanding, the Holy Spirit then used to open the minds and hearts of these listeners to believe the Good News of Jesus Christ.  That is what made their speech holy.   A whole lot of Spirit-splaining was going on.

The “holiness” of the Holy Bible is not in the ink on the paper or the fancy binding.  The “holiness” of this collection of writings is in what happens when God writes on the pages of our soul, imprinting there the true revelation that we are God’s child.  Whether we be a child freshly minted into this world, or we be a child long lost in thickets of this world, when we take in the words of this book and understands that it is the Holy Spirit speaking to us, then, for us, it becomes Holy Scripture.

That man I just told you about, by then into his mid-50’s, to him his King James Bible was a greatly valued book as a revered family heirloom.   It was a decades-old edition, like mine, of a book first published in the year 1611 containing beautifully constructed sentences.   That’s what the Bible was for him.

Until the day he picked up a contemporary translation that he could read and understand.  Then, he said, to paraphrase the words of verse 8: “How hear I now in my own tongue, wherein I was born….the wonderful works of God.”  As with these men and women 2,000 years ago, he was amazed—and according to him, frightened—by this close encounter with the Holy.

So, if you can’t read or hear and comprehend what your personal Bible is saying, then keep shopping…there is a translation out there somewhere, the language of which is your own language, your own dialect, your capacity to read, hear and comprehend.  But, watch out!   Pentecost might happen to you.

Which brings me back to my childhood King James reading of Acts 2, which I choose to use today because of the words, “Holy Ghost”.    You’ll notice that the King James uses both the words, “ghost” and “spirit” in translating the same New Testament word.  Mostly they translate the word as “spirit”.   But in verses 4 and, later, in verse 33 and 38, they translate the exact same word as “ghost”.

Here’s what going on:  wherever the word “spirit” is modified by the word “holy” they chose to translate it as “ghost”.  That was a theological decision on their part; it’s not a decision demanded by the text itself.  We’ll come back to that in a moment.

For Pentecost, I prefer the word “Ghost”, as the King James puts it.   You remember way back in high school when our dear English teachers would try to teach us to talk right.  They told us all about sibilant and fricative and plosive sounds?

“Spirit” is a sibilant.  To me, sibilants are subtle, sensuous, soft and whispering….breezy. But “ghost” is plosive…it’s momentarily blocked and then bursts free out of our mouths: “ghost”…  “gut”… “gosh”… “gust”.

So, “Ghost” to me fits Pentecost better.  Because this wasn’t a breezy Holy Spirit softly sifting among the believers…this was the Holy GHOst GUsting down on them, GUshing out through the windows and doors and GRAbbing and GAthering people from all around.  Verse 2 means something like a “sudden, violent wind” dropped down upon these believers.   It was like a Holy Ghost “microburst”!

We here all know what a “microburst” is, don’t we?  We seem to get at least one every summer.  A microburst is like a tornado in reverse.  The winds of a tornado swirl around and form a funnel that sucks everything in and up.  Well, in a microburst, the winds collide and rush down, hitting the ground with a sudden burst that blows everything outward and away.  This was a Holy GHOst microburst!

Neither phonetics nor meteorology guided the King James translators, though, in their choice of whether it would be “spirit” or “ghost”.  They made their choice based on their own current theology about the Trinity.  All translators have to do it.

You need to be aware of such things when you’re reading your Bible.  Translators have to make judgment calls on how to translate certain words and phrases into English.   They do that based on their best knowledge at the time of ancient and modern language.   They do that choosing based on their best current understanding of the ancient setting.  They also are guided by their theology, and by their own church practice.

For example, when the King James translators got to the Greek word, baptizo, they could have translated it as “dip” or “dunk” or “bathe”.  But in King James’s church, they did not “dip” nor “dunk” nor “bathe”; they “sprinkled”.   Would you want to be the scholar who had to tell King James that John the Baptist may have dipped Jesus or he might have dunked Jesus, but he most certainly did not sprinkle Jesus?

So, these scholars simply went with an easier option.   They chose an English word that had been coined from the Greek, the word baptism.   No need to get specific about how wet the person actually got.

There will be four lines queued up at the Pearly Gates:  there will be the sprinkled line and the dipped line and dunked line and the “I didn’t know line”.  We will of course all assume that we’re in the preferred boarding line.  But as soon as we go through our respective turnstiles, we’ll see we’re all are gonna queue up and get on the very same bus that takes us to our heavenly mansions.

But, what is the correct answer about baptism and so many other things in the Bible?  As with those King James translators and everyone from every age that’s picked up a Bible, we understand the Word of God through the lens of what we already think and believe about that Word.  Which is a real dilemma, because we none of us have perfect clarity of understanding.

What is the answer?  How does any human being find the truth of God if we come to this testimony of God with our best intentions but also with our very flawed capabilities?

The answer?  The answer for us today is as it was back then 2,000 years ago.   To borrow from Peter, Paul and Mary–not the ones from back then but from the 1960’s—“the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind”!   Acts chapter two, verse two:  “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.”

What these first believers in Acts chapter 2 needed to happen on that day was not some soft, sibilant, Spirit whispering in their ears of the things of God.  They needed a Holy GHOst microBURst, to break through their BOUND-up grasp of God and Jesus and the Gospel.  They needed to be BROken loose from the present limits of their imaginations and their faith, so they could proclaim God’s grace come on earth.  So do we all, with “we” including you and including me.

A moment ago I used the image of four lines on the outskirts of heaven merging into a single line to board a bus bound for heaven.  I borrowed that metaphor from C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce.  That’s the literary device Lewis used to describe a group of souls on a field trip aboard a bus.

They’re traveling across a great divide, or a “great divorce” to use Lewis’s quaint expression.  They are on a bus, traveling from the outskirts of hell over to the outskirts of heaven.  It’s a good read, The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.  I highly recommend it.

University Baptist Church, we are passengers traveling on a bus line being operated by the Holy Ghost Transit Authority.   This Jerusalem church before Pentecost, was made up only of Palestinian Jewish riders.  After Pentecost, not anymore:  the Holy Ghost Transit Authority parked its bus right there and even more riders got on.  Now, there were Jews and converts to Judaism from all over the known world who climbed on board and took their seat.

But what really got interesting along the way, is when the Holy Ghost bus parked even further out, and those non-Jews, plain old Gentiles with no thought of becoming Jews, starting on board the Holy Ghost bus.  Did the Holy Ghost kick them off?  No, the door closed and off they went again.

University Baptist Church is one of the better runs in the Holy Ghost Transit Authority, in my estimation.   But this bus has been parked and idling for far too long.   It’s time to pull away from the curb and move along.  Are you on board?

We will reach the destination God has for us, but I can’t drive the bus there and you can’t either.   Only the Holy Ghost of God gets that privilege.   This wonderful One of God, this Advocate and Helper and Sustainer whom Jesus promised, will get us safely to where we should be.

It’s not an express run, that’s for certain.   There will still be lot’s of stops along the way with many other riders coming aboard.   There’s room for all on any bus operated by the Holy Ghost Transit Authority.  Don’t miss the ride.

 

1C. Milo Connick, The New Testament:  An Introduction to Its History, Literature, and Thought, Literature, and Thought, 2nd Ed. (Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1978) pp. 6, 246.

Discombobulation

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 8, 2016.
Taken from Acts 1:1-11

A few years ago, I came across this quote that was taken from an academic study:  “In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things….But we are doing better than we did.”

When I read that, I thought, “Man!  Haven’t we all been there?”  It’s a rare and honest admission from a person who was not being paid to be confused.   I’ll read it again for you in a moment, but let me give you some context.

This quote comes from a book published in 1951 entitled The Workshop Way of Learning.  It was written by a professor at Wayne State University named Earl Kelley.

Throughout the 1940’s, Wayne State offered an annual training workshop for high school teachers.  After a decade of hosting these workshops, Dr. Kelley was given the job of assessing the worth of these workshops and, then, to recommend how the workshops should proceed.  So, Dr. Kelley does his study, then he writes up his findings.  In his introduction, Dr. Kelly wrote this:

We have not succeeded in answering all our problems—indeed we sometimes feel we have not completely answered any of them. The answers we have found have only served to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things. So this report does not purport to give final answers, or to claim that we now “know how to do it”…. But we are doing better than we did.1

I somehow feel that Luke might have included such a statement in his first draft of the Book of Acts.  Luke offers an introductory summary of what happened in those forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, when Jesus led his remaining eleven disciples in reviewing the sacred Scriptures, as Jesus assessed the meaning of his public ministry, as he invited these Eleven to understand all of it in the light of Easter morning.

Does not Dr. Kelley’s honest introduction so well express the state of these Eleven, as Luke introduces them to us on this first page of the Book of Acts:  The answers we have found have only served to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.

But, Luke instead chooses to introduce Acts this way, in verses 1 and 2:  ‘In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.’ 2

The first book to which Luke refers, of course, is his Gospel account.  If we take a moment to look back over into the last chapter of Luke’s first book, we can read there how Jesus worked with his followers over those critical forty days.  Luke concludes in chapter 24, verses 45-46, ‘Then he [that is, Jesus] opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written….”’

This in-depth review and interpretation Jesus does with the Eleven until, as Luke closes out his Gospel account, Jesus ‘led them out as far as Bethany….as was carried up into heaven.  And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy….’ (vv. 50-52)

Well, Luke knew what he was going to go on into his second book, the Book of Acts, so he sort of glossed over things there right at the end about what happened in that moment that Jesus ascended up into Heaven.  He picks it all up again here, for us, in Acts, chapter 1, verses 1-11.

To paraphrase Luke, recalling where I left off in my last book, dear reader, where I described how Jesus opened up the disciples’ minds to understand everything and laid it all out for them, well…you know how you can lead a horse to water?  Yeah, that’s pretty much the situation on this Day of Ascension.

Just imagine it!  Eleven guys, standing up on top of this hill, hands on hips, looking up in the sky like they just dropped something valuable.  But instead of falling down onto the ground, it fell up into the clouds!  Now, they’re standing there, staring up.  “Dang!  Can you see him?  I can’t see him.”  “Where’d he go?  Is that him?  No!  That’s a buzzard.”  “Well, maybe once all these clouds disappear, we can catch sight of him if he hasn’t drifted off too far.”

In Heaven, I can just imagine God the Father and Jesus, also standing there, hands on hips, watching these guys down on earth.  God says, “Well, Jesus, what’d ya think?  They’re your disciples; are they just gonna keep standing there all day?!”  And, Jesus would answer, “Yep, they’re my disciples alright.  Better give ‘em a little push!”

(Do you think Jesus, by the time he finished his three year or so ministry, had more grey hairs on his head than when he started?  You know, the whole Incarnation idea is that Jesus was fully human.  So, maybe by the time he finished he had a few more grey hairs, put there not by the Pharisees or the Sadducees but put there by his own disciples?)

So, poof!  These two messengers in white robes, appear.  And, yes, I think they are meant to remind us of the two messengers in white robes who appeared on Easter morning in the empty tomb, who had to tell the women, “You’re not going to find him here…go back to Jerusalem!”

They function almost as prompters who have to move folks along, to keep the action going.

These two call out, in verse 11, “Excuse us, Men of Galilee!  But, what are you doing?  He’s gonna come back, but not just right now, o.k.?”  So, the Eleven pack it in; they go back to Jerusalem where they’ve been staying these past forty days or so.  Perhaps, as they walk, they say among themselves, in the words of Dr. Kelley, “In some ways, we feel that we are as confused as ever, but at least now we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things, whatever those things may be.  We just don’t know.”

They don’t know.  In fact, “we just don’t know” could have been their motto.  At every twist and turn on their three-year walk with Jesus, these Eleven plus one—Judas Iscariot—consistently were confused and confounded over what Jesus told them and showed them.  They lived pretty much in a constant state of discombobulation.

That’s a wonderful word to put on their predicament…they are discombobulated.  It means “to throw into a state of confusion…to cause to be unclear in mind or intent.”  These Twelve demonstrated their discombobulation over and over, sometimes in very embarrassing ways.

Such as in Luke, chapter 9, when Jesus catches them arguing with each other over who among them is the greatest (Lk 9:46).  As in, “Yeah, I know Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite!”   (That was on a bumper sticker Karen once saw.)  Something along those lines.

Sometimes their confusion was tragic, as in John chapter 9, when they walk right up to a blind beggar sitting there on the curb and in a pathetic attempt to impress Jesus, they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”  This guy was blind, but he wasn’t deaf!   How did that make him feel, hearing them say that?

Other times, their discombobulation was just comical.  As in that time that Matthew 16 records for us.  You recall that day:  Jesus has been arguing with the Pharisees and the Sadducees over some point of law.  Then, Jesus and the Twelve got into a boat to sail across the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus tells his disciples, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

So, Matthew tells us, the disciples start whispering among themselves, “What do you think he meant by that, scolding us about leaven?”  Finally, they conclude, Jesus was rebuking them for forgetting to bring bread along for the trip.  So, Jesus had to spell it out for them.  “I’m talking about the teaching…Beware the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, not actual bread!”  “Oh,” say the disciples, “now we get it.”

Finally, they have suffered through the horror of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  They have reveled in his resurrection.  They have enjoyed these forty days of his presence among them.  Jesus has comforted them, restored them, taught even more about the meaning of his mission.

Now, Jesus meets with the Eleven once more on this significant place called the Mount of Olives.  He tells them, go back to Jerusalem.  Stay there until you receive this baptism, this gift, of God’s Holy Spirit.    “Finally!” the Eleven must have thought to themselves, “this is it!  It’s all finished, over and done with!”  They ask, “Lord, so at this time are you restoring the kingdom to Israel?”

Now, that is a reasonable question for them to ask Jesus.  They have about 2,000 years of sacred history backing them up; they have their Sacred Scriptures, they have the collected teachings of their best scribes and rabbis.  Now, they have the Resurrected One, the Messiah.  They have every reason to think they’ve got the all the pieces of the puzzle laid out before them, and now, God is going to put it all together in this one, grand picture:  the restored Kingdom of God on earth, headquartered there, in Israel, in Jerusalem.

How truly disorienting it had to be for them, when Jesus responds, “I can’t really say.  But, I’m leaving now.  God will send God’s own Holy Spirit upon you.  And, then, you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”  That was a total disconnect from what they were expecting.  It’s been that way since the day they took up with Jesus by the shores of the Sea of Galilee; it ends that way here on the Mount of Olives (v. 12), this last time they ever see Jesus on earth.  They are discombobulated.

If we were to work our way right on through this Book of Acts, we would see that it just keeps on happening…they receive this promised gift of God’s own Spirit among them.   But, they discover, this is not the end point in God’s creative movement among humanity.  Instead, they discover God launching them out in some totally unexpected directions, always unfolding before them a path they never expected to be traveling.

This Way of the Nazarene, this is a spiritual movement birthed out of the womb of Judaism.  Why wouldn’t they expect, then, that they would continue as a new form, a new practice, within Judaism?   I’m pretty sure if we were in their shoes back then, that’s exactly what we’d expect, too?

Well, in way, we are sort of in their shoes.  As I mentioned a moment ago, they had roughly 2,000 years of sacred history under their belts.  Well, we sitting here this morning, we have about 2,000 years of sacred Christian history under our collective belts, don’t we?

These followers of Jesus had their sacred Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets and the Writings, the Hebrew Bible.  Well, we have all that plus our own 26 books we call our New Testament.

They had their collected teachings of the scribes and rabbis interpreting the Hebrew Canon; it’s called the Talmud.  My goodness, do we ever have our own Christian Talmud!  Libraries full of commentary on top of commentary, we’ve got.  Throw on top of that all the stuff coming from every Christian pastor with an opinion, a computer and an internet connection.

In the minds of so many today, as was true for these Eleven on that day on the Mount of Olives, it’s as if Jesus has finished up all there is to know, do or say about the Kingdom!   But, Jesus seems to keep on telling us what Jesus told these poor folks back there on that hilltop:  “I can’t really tell you that.  I’m leaving.  God will send God’s own Holy Spirit upon you.  And, then, you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth until God says it’s done.”

Translated, Jesus was telling them and us don’t plan to stay put…you can’t be going and staying all at the same time.  Geographically, psychologically, theologically, methodologically, spiritually…you have got to keep your walking shoes on because the journey’s not over.

So, the story of God’s work among the human family keeps on unfolding in unexpected ways.  The kingdom of God is like trying to nail Jello to the wall—it won’t stay put where we want it.  I don’t like that.   I like order and predictability.

I could stand here and tell you in great detail exactly where my bedroom slippers are at this very moment sitting in the bedroom.  I could draw you a map, detailing in our walk-in closet where you would find hanging my dress clothes and my blue jeans.

The blue jeans, of course, I subdivide into three categories.  Working from front of the closet to the back, you would find my dress blue jeans (2 pairs), then my casual around-the-house jeans (2 pairs) and then, finally, my lawn-mowing grungy work jeans (approximately 1 and ¾ pairs).  I love Jesus, I love my wife, but by golly, they best not mess with my closet ‘cause I love that, too.

But, if I bring all that expectation of order and predictability to Jesus, you know what Jesus is going to do?  Jesus is going to look me in the eye and go, “Really?”  Here, he would say to me, “Let Dr. Jesus write you a prescription; there’s medication available for people like you, ‘cause you’re gonna need it if you follow me!”  So, I take my pills and hang on for wherever the Spirit of the Living Christ is leading.

So must we all, hang on and follow where the Living Christ leads, here in University Baptist Church and every other Christian church here in this year of our Lord, 2016.   Of course, the prescription Dr. Jesus writes for us is not available at our pharmacy.  It is, instead, what Dr. Jesus dispenses from waters of the baptistery and from the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper table.

We enter those waters to die with Christ, so that we may rise and live in the new life which Christ himself died and rose to give us.  We eat of his body and drink of his blood to remind ourselves that this business of following Jesus is not an easy outing to be taken lightly.  It’s life, it’s death, it’s the cross.   And, thank God, it is resurrection.

The same Spirit of God who resurrected the crucified Jesus, stands ready to resurrect this part of the body of Christ called University Baptist Church, along with every other gathering of every other person, who follow the Way of Jesus in this world.

The same Spirit who transformed Jesus’ sacrificed life into a transcendent life that could not be contained, seeks to transform this congregation’s life into a transcendent life that will not be contained.  It’s a risky thing we do.  It is a seriously discombobulating thing we do.   But how dare we do anything other than follow the One we know as Savior and Lord?

We may take this comfort, at least:  Jesus invites us to tolerate that disquieting experience of discipleship, so may we pursue matters higher and to do things more important and better than what we would do if left to our own devices.  It is true for you and me, personally, and it is true for us together as a church on the Way with Christ Jesus, who will day one come again in that glorious community of love we call, the Kingdom of God.

_________________________________

1 from blog, The Quote Investigator:  Exploring the Origins of Quotations, July 11, 2010; http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/07/11/confused/

2 exegetical resources taken from F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979) pp. 30-42; and Frank Stagg, The Book of Acts:  The Early Struggle for an Unhindered Gospel, (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1955), pp. 28-40.

 

Little Sabbath, Big Sabbath / Old Temple, No Temple

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 1, 2016.
Taken from John 5:1-11

 The Christian faith can turn and become a very shall-notty religion, can’t it?   Take, for example, the Ten Commandments.   Why is it always Christian leaders who want the public posting of the Ten Commandments?  I don’t recall any Jewish leaders doing that.   Why aren’t these Christian leaders pushing for the posting of the Beatitudes?

There’s something very appealing about all those “shall nots” of the Ten Commandments.  They’re almost all “shall nots”…you shall not have any other gods before me, says the Lord God; you shall not make any graven images nor take the Lord’s name in vain nor steal nor lie nor murder nor covet…all preceded by this directive:  you shall not.  That’s what I mean, it all seems to get “shall-notty”.    Two of the eight Ten Commandments are positive:   “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” and “Honor your father and your mother.”   All the rest, “shall nots”.

Then, there are all the prohibitive corollaries we ourselves come up with.  One of the homegrown corollaries for us boys growing up in the South was “thou shall not drink nor chew nor go with girls that do.”  In Martinsville where I grew up in my elementary school years, we had no girls who drank nor chewed in our church or elementary school, so I was safe.

But, then, something dramatic happened during the summer between 6th grade and 7th grade:  we moved to Waynesboro.   There, just over these beautiful mountains, in Waynesboro, I entered the halls of junior high school.   I was shocked!   Shocked, as for the first time, I encountered girls who had just as expansive and salty a vocabulary as the boys.   “Aha!” I thought.  “These must be some of the girls my mother had warned me about!”

If you were to ask me as a religious professional which kind of religion is easier to administer, I probably would lean toward the shall-notty kind.   It just seems simpler to tell people what they can’t do…“No! don’t do that!”  It just flows more easily off the religious tongue.  I think the Jewish religious administrators found this to be true as well.

These descendants of Aaron the first High Priest, loved to devise corollaries to the Ten Commandments.   They even took the positive command, “You shall remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy,” and they turned that into a negative!

These keepers of the sacred flame of Judaism delineated a long list what thou shall not do if you are to keep the Sabbath holy:  you shall not…you shall not…you shall not.   All these corollaries, their versions of “neither drink nor chew nor go with girls that do,” spun out in excruciating detail.

By the time Jesus shows up at the Temple in Jerusalem, the “shall nots” of Sabbath had long-ago buried the “shall”.   It really seemed to rankle Jesus!  To these religious administrators, Jesus said, “Oh, yeah!   Well, you just sit back and watch me do what I shall do.”  And, Jesus did.

Such as on this Sabbath day John records for us in chapter 5.  We, the readers, don’t know yet that it’s the Sabbath.  That’s because John doesn’t mention the Sabbath until the very end of verse 9.   Verses 1 through 8 simply describe for us this miraculous healing Jesus accomplishes one day as he goes to celebrate a festival at the Temple.

But, before we get there with John let me ask you:  what does the Sabbath matter to you?   As we’ll see, it mattered a great deal for these folks.   But, what does the Sabbath matter to you?

For the Jews, Sabbath was sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.  The sun set on Friday and out would come all the “shall nots” to get them through Saturday.  But, in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, his Jewish followers did the unthinkable:   they changed the Sabbath.  How dare they?   How dare they, each of them devout Jews, how dare they upend almost 1,300 years of accepted Jewish doctrine?

They dared because of what they knew in the light of Easter morning.   Not right away, of course.   They were absolutely confused and even terrified by Easter morning.   But as the months and years passed, they began to understand the meaning of Easter, and they changed Sabbath.   What did Sabbath now mean for them?   What does Sabbath mean for you?

Chapter 5, verse 2, John tells us Jesus enters on to the Temple grounds by way of the Sheep Gate.  The Sheep Gate was just that:   it was the point of entry where worshippers would bring the sheep for the priests to prep them to be sacrificed on the Temple altar.*

There by the Sheep Gate, there also was a large, spring-fed pool; steps at each corner of the pool led down into the water.   Five covered walkways were there, four ran along the sides of the pool and fifth walkway, scholars think, went across the midsection, dividing the pool into two parts.

The story was that at random moments, an unseen angel of God would briefly disturb the water…perhaps a momentary bubbling or rippling in some part of the pool.   Whoever made it down the steps and into the water first would be healed of whatever ailed them, and only the first one in would be healed.

You can imagine such a desperate scene.  John says in verse three that under these five covered walkways lay a great number of disabled people…the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.  Those who could see would watch, their eyes scanning back and forth over the pool’s surface for any unusual movement in the water.   Those who were blind would have to listen ever so carefully for any noise, any sudden movement in the crowd that suggested the others had seen a stirring in the water and so were moving to get in.

All these ailing people lay there, vigilant, ready to thrust themselves ahead of the others.  Those men and women who were paralyzed…who of their families could afford to sit all the day through, ready to help their paralyzed loved one down into the healing waters?

This practice, so random and so cruel, pitting sick against sick, blind against the lame and the lame against the paralyzed, every one of them with such debilitating suffering that it compelled them into this desperate competition for healing.

Perhaps the worst cruelty was this:   they actually believed this was God’s way for them to find healing.  That God could be so arbitrary as to set up this contrivance there on edges of the Temple grounds among the livestock, as if they were but so many dumb animals to whom God might, one day, throw some small scrap of mercy.  How many prayed, “Dear God, send the angel today, won’t you?”  “Let me win today, God…let me for once, win the race down into waters.”

Jesus walks by this travesty, and sees the same man that Jesus has seen every time he’s come to the Temple.   Even as a boy, coming to the Temple with Mary and Joseph, Jesus would see this very same man laid out under one of the porticoes by the Pool of Bethsaida.

Today, Jesus stops.  He asks this man, “Just how long have you been coming to the Pool looking to be healed?”  The man says, “Thirty-eight years I’ve done this, and I haven’t been healed yet.”  Jesus himself is only about thirty years old.  For eight years longer than Jesus has been alive on this earth, this man has lain here.

“Why in the world haven’t you been healed after all these years?  Don’t you want to get well?” Jesus asks him.

“Well, how can I?  Look at me!” says the man.   “No one will help me.   Every time there’s a bubble or a burp, it’s a stampede.  They run me over getting into the water!”

“Get up,” says Jesus.   “You’re well.   Pick up your mat.  Walk the rest of your days in the healing I give you.”  So, the man does.  He picks up his mat and starts walking.   What a stir that must have caused among the crowd.

John does not pause to wonder, beyond this man’s own explanation, why this man has lain here all these years.   That’s not the point of the story.   The point is what happens next.  Watch, John tells us at the end of verse nine, watch what happens, because that day was the Sabbath.

 The keepers of the Sabbath “shall nots” swoop down like vultures over a carcass.  “What are doing?!” they shout at the man.  “Thirty-eight years you’ve laid there, and you suddenly pick the Sabbath to get up and carry your pallet?  It is the Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.  What has gotten into you?!”

“It’s not my idea,” the man protests. “ The man that healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.’”  Yes, Jesus who for years has known this man’s dilemma could have picked any other day to do this good work of saving grace.   There was no emergency.  But, as was his habit, Jesus picked the Sabbath.

These keepers of the Sabbath looked on a man miraculously healed and saw a Sabbath law-breaker.   Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, looked on that same man and saw a broken Sabbath.

The promise of God’s Sabbath was the promise of healing.   The promise of God’s Sabbath was the promise of restoration.  The promise of God’s Sabbath was the promise of celebration.   But, instead, the promise of God’s Sabbath had become promise broken, not by God, but by God’s priests.  This man’s plight epitomized the curse of a broken-down Sabbath.

Do you find healing in the Sabbath?   Do you find something essential being restored to your soul?   Do you look to Sabbath as a celebration of what only God can give us because we know this broke world cannot give the one thing we must have, which is communion with God?   Or, have we God’s people become like this man, laid out by a pool that offers nothing except one more day to be disappointed?

Now, I’ll concede this point to you:  we clergy, we whom God has called as keepers of this sacred flame, we have long settled for the simplicity of the shall-nots.  We clergy have to answer for all the ways we have broken God’s Sabbath promise.

But, thank God, Easter still dawns, shining the light of God’s salvation even for such weak souls as we so-called priests can be.  Easter still dawns for you in your search for God’s Sabbath promise.   Easter yet shines upon us here in this congregation, sisters and brothers of the Lord of the Sabbath, once crucified, now risen and alive among us.

When Jesus shared that Last Supper with his followers, he picked up that common cup and said, drink this and know now, in me, is the new covenant God makes.   All the promise of the old Sabbath transformed into something new that we discover together, just like those first believers had to do:  the promise of God’s new, Big Sabbath.

Do you want to be healed? Jesus asked the man.  Sir, I have no one to help me and everyone is against me.   No more, says Jesus, no more.   It’s the Sabbath, don’t you know?  Rise…and walk.  It is indeed, an unending Sabbath for we who have heard Christ’s call, “Rise and follow me.”

 

* references used are Raymond E. Brown, ­The Gospel According to John, I-XII, The Anchor Bible; Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1966, pp. 205-211; and Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971, pp. 298-306.

 

A Bit of Undigested Beef. A Fragment of Underdone Potato.

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 24, 2016.
Taken from Acts 11:1-18

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Just by way of preface, let me note for us that these 18 verses of Acts 11 document what is perhaps the most critical juncture in the life of the early church.   What happens here in this church conference is second only to the Day of Pentecost itself in its importance to the Christian movement.

So important is this event, Luke devotes a very long chapter 10 to tell the story of what happened to Peter, while he was up on the rooftop of a friend’s house, and what came after.   Then, Luke immediately repeats for us in chapter 11, what he’s just told us in chapter 10, almost word for word.

When a Bible writer does that, what is that person telling us?   That writer is telling us:  this is so very important for you to get, I’m gonna stop and tell you twice, before moving on.

In chapter 11, verses 1-18, the other Apostles have demanded Peter come back to Jerusalem and explain to them and to the rest of the church what he’s been up to.   They want to know why he has baptized Gentiles in the name of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, without first requiring them to give up their Gentile ways

For these other Apostles, Peter has not merely committed a procedural oversight; he has started down a road many in the church believe strikes at the very heart of their movement.   It’s a big deal.

So, Peter tells them what Luke has already told us in chapter 10.  Peter’s up topside on a friend’s house over in Joppa.   He’s enjoying the late morning, but it’s getting on toward lunch.  Peter’s hungry.   He calls down, “Hey! When’s lunch?”  His friends call back up, “Hold your horses!   We’re working on it!”

So, Peter waits up there for his lunch, and he falls into a trance.   Three times, while Peter’s in this trance, this apparition of a great sheet appears above him.   An unseen hand has gathered this sheet up by it four corners, which it now lowers down before Peter there on the rooftop.

The four corners are released, the sheet falls open there before Peter.   Peter, of course, is surprised, then shocked and horrified, for what the sheet contains is alive and anxious to get out.

Flooding around Peter come creatures,  crawling and creeping and slithering and flying even, animals and reptiles and birds of all kinds:  but, not pleasant things at all!   They are things Peter never ever wants to see nor touch nor taste.

The sheet releases things that frighten Peter, that make him wretch, that makes his skin crawl, and yet he cannot run; he cannot move, as these filthy things flow under his robes and over his sandaled feet and brush past his face and catch in his hair.   And the voice belonging to the hidden hand that’s just set loose this horror upon Peter says to him, “Peter, you’re hungry?  You want something to eat?   Rise, Peter; kill and eat.

Peter recognizes it is the voice of his Lord Jesus.   No, Lord; I have never eaten such things…they are forbidden!

The sheet instantly disappears.   But before Peter can catch his breath, or think to move, or shake himself free, once again, the sheet appears above him, the same unseen hand holding the sheet by its four corners, plops the sheet there at Peter’s feet, releases the corners.   The same horror unfolds before him; the same command comes for Peter to eat what the Lord has served him; a second time Peter refuses the Lord.

A second time, the sheet disappears; the abhorrent creatures are gone.  But, still, Peter remains stuck in place, unable to move or turn away or shut his eyes.   A third time, the sheet appears, and Peter, with dread, knows what he’s about to endure for a third time.

I like to play with sermon titles.   The first one I came up with was, “Ew, gross. Cooties!”, but then I thought that might send the wrong message to the children.   Then, I thought, “Peter:  Three Sheets to the Wind!”.   But, that might send the wrong message to the adults and might actually get me struck by lightning.

So, I thought, here’s a man suffering from gastronomic distress, a man unknowingly encumbered by the unseen chains forged over many years, a three-fold apparition attempting to unshackle a stubborn heart and a stubborn mind.  Of course!  Peter is Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

The ghost of Scrooge’s dead business partner, Jacob Marley, appears to Scrooge.   Scrooge dismisses him as a bit of stomach distress.

Marley’s ghost challenges Scrooge:  “Why do you doubt your senses?” Scrooge scoffs that “…a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

That’s Peter, up on the rooftop, waiting for his lunch.  His trance…who knows?  A case of low blood sugar?   Heat stroke, perhaps, up there on the roof under the hot sun of high noon?   So, naturally, he hallucinates about food.  He has a moment of mental confusion distorting a lifetime of religious practice.   Peter might have scoffed, “There’s more of lunch than of the Lord about you, whatever you are!”

Yet, somehow, this vision rang a bell in Peter’s memory.   Peter recalls something similar from his past with Jesus.  Such as that day the Gospel accounts record for us.   The Pharisees had attacked Jesus for allowing his followers to break the laws for ritual cleansing.

Jesus shoos the Pharisees away.   He tells his followers:   what goes into your mouth, goes into your stomach, and then moves on.   It’s not what goes into your mouth and into your stomach that gives God trouble.   It’s what starts down in your heart and then out of your mouth that offends God.   Mark’s Gospel account here adds this note, in chapter 7, verse 19:  thus [Jesus] declared all foods clean.

Jesus basically tells his fellow Jews:  I know what the Scripture says, I know what we’ve all been taught, I know what you all believe will get you in deep, deep trouble with God.   But, that no longer applies.   Yes, that law was necessary for the time and place our forebearers once lived…but, it no longer applies to you or me nor to those who come after us.

Jesus tells his followers:   You’ve got to revise your religion to conform to what I, Jesus, your Lord, am now teaching you and showing you.   What once was useful and needful, are now but chains and shackles for your souls.   Be free of those commandments, teachings and expectations.  What once was needed has now turned into stumbling blocks.

Now, as you can easily imagine, that was some serious stuff for Jesus to be saying.  Matthew records in chapter 15, verse 12, The disciples came and said to [Jesus], ‘Boy, the Pharisees are really ticked off at you for saying that!’

You may know Edwin Markham’s little poem, “Outwitted”.   The first line reads, “He drew a circle that shut me out—heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”   The religious leaders called Jesus all those things and worse, didn’t they?

So, it’s not really all that hard to understand why Jesus’ disciples, such as Peter, were so reluctant to hear Jesus on this matter of kosher law.

The thing we modern day non-kosher folks misunderstand is that these kosher commandments were not about hygiene.   For one thing, they didn’t just cover food, but they also covered clothing, for example.

These all were ways for the ancient Jews to mark clear boundaries between themselves and other ancient peoples among whom they lived and, especially, to separate themselves from the religions of those other people.   These laws were very much about saying, this is who we are because this is who God is.

Now, Jesus is telling his followers, well, no, here is what is closer to the truth of who God is.   To borrow again from Edwin Markham, for a time, God had scribed a fairly tight circle of inclusion and exclusion for those with whom God made covenant.   But, with Jesus’ coming, with Jesus’ example and teaching, with Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, God drew an all-encompassing circle excluding no one.

But, it is so very hard to allow one’s faith find a new form of religion by which to grow and live that faith.   Faith is our soul’s sensibility of God, our soul’s conviction of God’s presence; faith is our soul’s capacity to comprehend and commune with God in God’s true nature.

Religion is the container we make, to live out our faith; most often, others have fashioned and passed down to us our religious containers:   all those practices and all those statements and declarations and creeds and bells and whistles get spelled out, generation after generation, all shaping a religion to serve as a manageable way to live what our souls have discerned.

Religion migrates down deep into our souls.   So, we do not simply change our religion at the drop of a hat; not even if its Jesus himself who’s trying to knock that hat off of us, as Jesus is trying to do with Peter on that rooftop in Joppa.

Have you ever taken off your shoes and taken a good look at your feet?   And then looked back at your shoes, and then look at your feet again, especially your toes?  We won’t do that now, here in church, but give it try when you get back home.

I don’t really spend time looking at other people’s feet.   But, I’m guessing it’s not just my feet that look suspiciously like they’ve conformed more to the shape of my shoes than the other way around.

I had a friend in college named Nina.   Nina’s parents were Baptist missionaries in Kenya, and that’s where Nina grew up.   At college, where Nina and I became friends, she sometimes bemoaned to us that she’d lost what she called her “African feet”.

Where Nina grew up in Kenya, all children and many adults went barefoot.  If they wore shoes at all, they were sandals.  The soles and toes of their feet were more spread out, more responsive to the varying shapes and textures of the ground on which they walked.

But, once Nina got into her teens, her parents sent her to a high school for children of Westerners working in Africa.  Closed-toe shoes were the norm, as was the case when Nina returned to America to go to college.   The shoes began to shape Nina’s feet until one day she realized, she no longer had her “African feet”.

Faith is the substance of our souls; it is our spiritual feet and religion is the shoes.   Like shoes subtly but surely shaping our feet, our religion shapes our faith.   That’s good and necessary, until our religion starts to distort our faith into something other than or less than the faith of Jesus.  We want the living faith of a living Lord.

Jesus’ experience of God would no longer allow him to accept the forms of his religion.  He worked and taught mightily to get his followers to understand that they, too, would need to let him redefine their religion.   That’s what he was talking about in that familiar metaphor of wine skins and new wine.

Not an easy task at all.   It certainly was not an easy task for Jesus to accomplish with Peter.   Not here on the rooftop, this day in Joppa, and not in the years that followed.   The Spirit of Christ kept on having to confront Peter and challenge Peter to let the Spirit reshape his religion, to change his religion to conform to truth of God as Peter now knows God through Jesus Christ.

That’s why the Lord was scaring the beejeebers out of Peter that high noon on the rooftop was because Jesus had a mission for Peter.   He wanted Peter to go to the home of a Gentile, the Roman commander, Cornelius.   Jesus wanted all preconditions set aside from Peter’s mind.

Jesus needed Peter to speak with this man and his family, to receive this man’s hospitality and to let Cornelius and his household know, God had redrawn the circle.   The Good News, the Gospel, was this:  even they, despised Gentiles, were in the circle of God’s love.   Period.   Just as they were.

So.  Let’s say you’re on the rooftop, having this vision.   Down comes the sheet.   The four corners are turned loose to unfold.   What would be inside your sheet?   What of your religion would Jesus, today, want you to change, so that your faith and how you practice your faith, are set free, to better serve the Lord?

I can tell you what would be in my sheet.   First, you need to know:   I like singing traditional hymns out of a Baptist hymnal.   I like having a book you can open to page whatever and hold while you sing.   Because, I despise singing off a movie screen stuck up front of a sanctuary.

Singing praise choruses projected onto a screen make me to slip into a brief mental coma:  my mouth is moving, the lights stay on, but I am not at home for the duration of the praise chorus.

I do not like what I call “preacher casual”.   You know the look?   A polo shirt, khaki pants and casual dress shoes.   I’ve got a preacher suit, thank you very much, and a clergy robe because that’s the way Jesus and I like it.   Jesus did not dress like he was taking a date to the movies.

Also, honest-to-goodness Baptists hold worship from 11:00 am to precisely 12:00 pm on Sunday mornings.   Those are some of the reasons why I joined University Baptist Church, 12 years ago now.   I liked how you were doing church.

I am so glad you called me to be your interim Senior Minister, because I was holding my breath, afraid that one day, God just might drop a sheet down at my feet.  There, spread out before me, would be an earnest group of worshipers, staring happily up at a movie screen, singing their hearts out to some Bill Gaither tune.   A minister of worship arts, in a knit shirt and khaki pants, leads them from behind a keyboard put smack in the middle of the chancel.

A voice would command:  “Gary!   Rise and go interim!”  And I would cry out, “But, Lord, I’ve never reduced myself to such a state of affairs such as that!”  Up would go the sheet, only to return a second time.   Again, the voice would command, “Gary!   Rise and go interim with these folks!”  A second time I would protest.

Yet a third time, the sheet would be lowered before me.   The voice will command:  “Gary!  I liketh what they doeth!   And by the way, dust off your King James Bible because that’s how they best heareth me!”   It maketh my skin crawl to thinketh of it, but, truth be told, God is not wedded to the Baptist hymnal nor clergy in suits and robes nor the Eleven-to-Noon time slot.

What would it be for you?   What would be in your sheet that the Lord would lay at your feet?

We could dismiss the Lord as bit of undigested beef, a fragment of underdone potato, or just plain wrong.   What a shame for any of us to so lightly slight our Lord.  How sad, should we as a church fail to grow our religion to fit the faith God would offer us through such moments.  The risk always is that we subjugate our faith to a religion that is too small.

We live in an ever-changing world of possibilities into which God would lead us, to know God more truly and to serve God more fully.   God leads us, so we and others may experience that full circle of salvation God has prepared for all of us together, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

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