Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Born By Water And The Spirit

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 3:1-17:

Today’s scripture might contain two of the most famous passages for American Christianity.  First we have the famous John 3:16, and then we have Jesus saying that we must be born again, or born from above, which is how the NRSV translate it, an idea which plays a major role for a significant portion of the American church, and so I was asked to explore what this idea means.  What did it mean for Jesus and what does it mean for us?  Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to engage in a conversation.  When people came in darkness it is often the sign of bad things to come.  This is true in most books of the Bible, but for John darkness is a metaphor representing a separation from God.  But there is something positive here as well, and that is that Nicodemus seeks Jesus’ out, which is the first step of discipleship in John.  So from the start it’s not clear whether Nicodemus is on Jesus’ side or not.  He says he knows that Jesus is from God, although he doesn’t actually really know.

So Jesus tells him, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Notice that the primary emphasis here is not about eternal life, but about the kingdom.  While we talk a lot about eternal life, Jesus actually had little to say about the afterlife, but he did talk a lot about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven depending on which gospel you are reading.  In fact, in the synoptic gospels, the first thing Jesus says as he begins his ministry is “repent,” why?  For the kingdom of God has come near.  Jesus’ message is a kingdom proclamation, and not just of a kingdom to come, but of a kingdom here and now, just as we pray each week, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Even John 3:16 is about the here and now, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  When does eternal begin?  Is it something that only starts when we die?  Doesn’t sound very eternal.  This is not a statement about the afterlife, this is a statement about eternal life, a life lived in the eternal presence of God.  This is a statement that shifts the emphasis not to our death but to the here and now.  Our eternal life with God is taking place here in the present, it is a current reality.  This is an eschatological claim, and we’re remembering that eschatology deals with the end of time.  Jesus is saying that the end of time is here already, and yet it is not here as well.  Repent for the kingdom of God has come near.  Our eternal life with God begins not sometime in the future; it begins now in this very moment because the kingdom is here, now, and God is present for us, here and now, and for all time.  But how do we get that?  Well that’s where knowing a little Greek helps, or at least leaning on those who know the Greek, which is what I do.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Father of Righteousness

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Romans 4:1-17:

The first request I received on what to preach about after Easter was the issue of righteousness.  It was a request made on behalf of the Thursday morning women’s group.  They came into my office and said, “What is righteousness?” and my response was “you’re looking at it.”  The question is actually a very good one because one of the major themes of scripture is righteousness, although we don’t really talk about what it means, hence the question, and more often deal with it as if everyone knows what it means, probably because we don’t know what it means.  But today we are going to try and tackle the subject, although I want to set your expectations a little low that we are going to be able to completely cover the topic, because there are just too many different ideas to be covered all at one time, so this will be sort of 30,000 foot view.

The word righteous or righteousness is found 630 times in the bible, and that doesn’t include other times that it might have been used but is translated differently.   To give you a comparison, the word love is found 872 times.  The Hebrew word is tsedheq or tsedhaqah, and it is also often translated as justice or integrity or sometimes deliverance.  Its fundamental meaning is to do the right.  The Greek word found in the New Testament is dikaiosynÄ“, having a similar meaning to the Hebrew word, and it too is often translated as justice, but also sometimes blamelessness, mercy, or compassion.  In the gospel of Luke, after Jesus dies, a roman soldier at the foot of the cross says, “surely this man was innocent.”  The word translated as innocent is this same word, so really the centurion is saying that Jesus was righteous.

Surprisingly, Jesus does not talk about righteousness all that much, and when he does it sort of has an ironic characteristic, such as saying that he came not to call the righteous but sinners, where righteousness is really about self-righteousness.  But there are people who are called righteous.  Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, are said to be blameless, another word for righteous, and one we see applied to several characters, including Job, Noah and Abraham, who will get back to.  Joseph of Arimathea was said to be a good and righteous man, and John the Baptist is said to be both holy and righteous, a combination of characteristics that is also plentiful.  Paul is one of the few people to proclaim himself righteous, well besides for the righteous brothers, and it is in Paul’s writings, in particular in Romans, where we find most of the consideration of righteousness in the New Testament.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pentecost: Get Out of the Room

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 2:1-21 and Genesis 11:1-9:

While the Tower of Babel might not be the best known story in the Bible, it is certainly one that is known by most people, it’s sort of seeped into our consciousness, even for people who might not have been raised in the church.  The Tower of Babel serves as the last of the ancient histories in Genesis, before moving onto the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  In some ways this story  sets itself up as a grand story from the first lines, in which we are told that “the whole earth had one language and the same words,” which  remembering George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” I’ve always wondered how that’s possible.  Like the other stories of the ancient histories this passage serves as an etiology, that is it is a story that seeks to explain why things are, and so it seeks to tell us why if we all came from the same place why we speak different languages.  But just like with the other stories, this is of course much more than just a story of origins.  If that’s all it was we wouldn’t be talking about it all these millennia later, so what is it that makes this story important and what can we learn from it, and the story of Pentecost that we can apply to our lives today?

The story that comes immediately before this is the flood, and so obviously there is a large gap of time, although none is indicated, so that the population has grown large again.  But rather than following God’s injunction to “be fruitful and multiple and fill the earth,”  which is the injunction given first to Adam and Eve, and then it is given twice, in just a few verses to Noah’s and his sons.  Instead they are all staying in one place, and indeed one of the two reasons why they give for why they should build a city and a tower is so that they are not scattered “upon the whole face of the earth.”  Why this is a fear is not really said, because it’s not clear who will do this scattering.  We might think it would be God, but there are not threats that this is going to happen, but it is really this fear that drives the first reason why they need to do this, and the second reason is so that they can “make a name” for themselves.

That sort of stands in contrast to what most people think is happening here which is that they began to build this tower in order to challenge God, to try and build a tower that would reach heaven.  That’s certainly the story I remember from Sunday school when I was young, and it’s certainly the imagery we see in art or in the movies, of people trying to reach God.  But that is not what the passage actually says, and the New Revised Standard Version, which was the translation we heard today, sorts of encapsulates this better than the King James Version, by saying that they are building the tower to the heavens, rather than to heaven.  That is they are building it up into the skies, rather than into heaven itself.  We are also told that this tower is not seen by God as a threat, by what happens immediately afterwards, and it’s sort of hidden between the lines unless we’re paying close attention to the text, but what it says is that God “came down to see the city and the tower.”  God has to come down in order to see what it is that they are doing.  This city and tower are not a threat to God, instead what is a threat is why they did it, and that is to make a name for themselves and to keep themselves from getting scattered across the whole earth.