Sunday, November 15, 2009

Messianic Vision (Sermon Delivered 11/15/09)

A rabbi was invited to speak to a class of Christian students. One of the students, asked the rabbi why he didn't think Jesus was the messiah. "Your scriptures," he told the rabbi, "prophesy about a messiah in very particular ways, all of which Jesus fulfills. He is the suffering servant of Isaiah. He was born of a virgin. He was of the tribe of David, born in Bethlehem. He was preceded by Elijah in John the Baptist. He performed many miraculous signs, healing the sick and forgiving sins. He took his iniquities upon him when he hung on the cross. And he rose from the dead, conquering the grave. And you're a religious man, certainly you can't say our scriptures are false, but yours are true. Why don't you believe in Jesus?"

The rabbi went to the window and pointed out it at nothing in particular. In a truly rabbinic fashion he told the students to look out the window and asked, "What do you see?" I don't know what those students saw out that window, but I can tell you what is out there today. I see leaves drying up and falling. I see cars that emit noxious gases from fuels purchased with blood money. I see a beat up, old house falling apart.

The rabbi would tell us we see things dying. In this world, growth leads to death as much as death leads to growth. What we see is the cycle of life and death and it has always been. The only thing to alter this cycle, the rabbi would say, will be messiah.

But we believe in Jesus, friends, the messiah has come and has altered the cycle of life and death. But look around you. What do you see? How can we say life and death no longer work like they used to when they work just like they always have? If Jesus is the messiah why is there still death? sin? war? oppression? poverty? suffering of every kind? Where are the signs of the messiah?

The rabbi doesn't believe in Jesus, but he wants the same thing we want and struggles with the same things, friends. We all want God's kingdom established on this earth, for love to reign, and all evils to cease. And even if Jesus as the Messiah is what separates us from religious Jews, both groups must address why this world is the way it is. Jews deal with evil in light of God's existence and the absence of a messiah whereas we deal with evil in light of God's existence through the arrival, departure, and delayed second-arrival of our messiah.

I don't know exactly how to deal with this problem. I pretend not to solve the issue. I don't use the pulpit to give answers, but to collaborate. I offer you a perspective and hope we can all engage with it personally and collectively, in words and deeds. Let us pray.

Jesus spoke to this issue of looking around for messianic signs. He said people looking for a sign and said they would only receive the sign of Jonah. Of the three times Jesus mentions the sign of Jonah, one time he gives no explanation of what it means.

Another time he compares Jonah's three days and nights in a fish to the three days and nights Jesus will be in the grave. In order to talk more about this connotation, I would like to invite the children to come up and we'll talk about Jonah.

At this point, I told the story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish. I don't think I can represent this part of the sermon without the kids. To summarize though, we decided you cannot get away from God. Jonah was on a boat, but God found Jonah. Jonah went into the sea and God found him. Jonah was in a fish and God heard him. Jesus was on a cross, but God found him in the grave.

The last time, Jesus mentions the sign of Jonah, he says he will be a sign just as Jonah was a sign to Nineveh. This third correlation reaches to a part of Jonah with which many of us are unfamiliar, because it has nothing to do with a fish, although it is just as fishy.

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. And Jonah began to go into the city one day’s journey. And he cried out and he said, “Yet 40 days and Ninevah is overturned.” And the people of Ninevah trusted in God and they called a fast and put on sackcloth, the young and the old, the rich and the poor. And the word reached to the king of Ninevah and he arose from his throne and removed his cloak. And he covered [himself] in sackcloth and sat upon the ash. And he cried out and said in Ninevah: “From the decree of the king and his great ones, saying, let neither human nor beast, neither herd nor flock, let them not taste of anything; let them neither graze nor drink water. And let the people and animals cover themselves [with] sackcloth and let them cry mightily unto God and let each turn from their evil ways and from the violence that [is] in their hands. Who knows? God might repent, be sorry, and turn from that burning anger so that we will not perish.” And God saw their deeds, because they turned from their evil ways and God was sorry about the intended evil, so God did not do it. Jonah 3:1-10 (1-4 RSV; 5-10, my translation)

"Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown"? Not really the most eloquent of sermons, the message leaves a little bit to be desired. No hope. No call to repentance. Why even deliver the message? Why give the Ninevites a timeline? Since when is the God of Israel--Jonah's God and our God--a sadist? Certainly God didn't want the Ninevites to run around town panicking for forty days as they await their ineluctible doom. I wonder, did Jonah really deliver the whole message and nothing but the message God gave him? Or does the book give us a summary of what Jonah said?

When we read the story closely, we see the book continually leaves out details, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps in the story, a technique very familiar to any narrative, fiction and nonfiction, biblical or not. So I can't imagine God sent Jonah only to bring news of destruction. I have no reason to think the Jonah in this story said exactly those words. Whatever Jonah said, I doubt it was all rainbows and butterflies. But in spite of the depressing, imprecatory feelings we get from the story, the Ninevites held out hope.

After one day of a depressing message, the whole city somehow manages to repent. Ignoring how ridiculously fast the message traveled, I wonder what exactly compelled them to believe? What compelled them to fast and wear sackcloth?

Or, here's an even better question: Why did they make the animals fast and wear sackcloth? Was their too much gossip in the barnyard? Too much oppression? Maybe the white sheep continued a residual racism against the black sheep. Maybe the bulls wouldn't associate with the steers. And surely the ostriches were ostracized.

Cheesy puns aside, God's reaction is crazier than the animals being forced to fast and wear sackcloth because of a message of destruction from an angry prophet who was just vomited up from a large fish after being tossed into the ocean and left for dead by a group of sailors who thought the God of Israel would stop a storm if they tried to drown some guy who paid to get on their boat in order to flee from the divine presence.

God's reaction is so revolutionary, because the Hebrew tradition was pretty straightforward about how to repent and be favored by God. First, you had to be chosen, which by Jonah's time meant you had to be an Israelite. You had to obey the law, be circumcised, and engage in worship that focused on one God whose glory was represented in a temple in Jerusalem. The Ninevites likely had little knowledge of Israel's covenant relationship with God outside of stereotypes and misunderstandings and they likely stayed ignorant of that relationship and the subsequent laws. Instead of following the laws and repenting the way God demanded of Israel, they simply believed God, which means they believed the words Jonah spoke on behalf of God, they didn't "believe in God" in the turn of phrase we toss about today. They only repented of what their consciences demanded and God still accepted their repentance. And Jonah got madder than a hornet in response, as we find out in chapter 4.

But chapter three is why Jesus reached back to Jonah. Jonah was a messianic sign to Nineveh, a sign of a God whose love is greater than our sin. And Jonah got so mad because he knew God's love was boundless. If Jonah brought a message of salvation to anyone, he wanted it to be to his own people. But despite his efforts, Jonah becomes like a messiah to Nineveh, being God's voice to them, a voice followed by love, acceptance, and forgiveness: that's salvation, friends.

Both times Jesus explains the sign of Jonah, he also says, "and now one greater than Jonah is here." Jesus calls himself similar to Jonah in making a comparison, but also greater than Jonah. Which reminds me: according to the Gospel of John, Jesus said, "anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. [Those ones] will do even greater things than these" (John 14:12).

If Jesus is greater than Jonah and we who have faith will do things greater than Jesus, then right now many greater than Jonah are here. I see a whole room full of people greater than Jonah, people empowered by Christ to be like Christ.

Isn't this what we mean when we call ourselves part of the body of Christ, that we, together, are the presence of Christ in this world? Friends, if we have faith in Jesus, we will also be messiah.

And this perspective isn't terribly different from that of the rabbi I spoke of earlier. Many Jews remember God telling Abraham he would become a blessing, which means Abraham would be so blessed that he would bless others. So many Jewish people aim to bless this world in their actions. In the absence of messiah, they are God's means of blessing the whole earth and all that is in it.

We, too, see problems in the world and realize it is our job to change the world, to establish God's kingdom on this earth. In the physical absence of our messiah, we, too, become messiah. And when we look out the window with our messianic vision, we see some pretty ridiculous things. Where some see death, we see life. That run down house may be falling apart, but inside, it houses a great amount of food to feed the hungry who come to this church on Mondays and Thursdays. The house may be dying, but we're using it for life.

When we look out the window with our messianic vision, we see life, but don't expect death to turn the corner. I think Christians are pretty famous for not seeing death. For how long have Christians prayed the Lord's prayer or recited the Apostles' creed? How long have Presbyterians worshiped in a structured, liturgical form? Any level-headed person would have expected these things to die long, long ago. But we look at the liturgy, add some music in a style born in the 60s and 70s, call it contemporary, use some powerpoint and voila, we have really brought some sort of new life where death should happen. I don't understand how, but it is working. And I love it. We hear the statistics about how many churches and denominations have waning numbers, but we see life around us here this morning and know, somehow, the Church will continue despite the statistics--with or without the liturgy--so that the life we foster in here will bring life out there. The church isn't about what goes on in here, it is about what we do out there.

And this messianic vision is hard to maintain. As a "lighter" example, I've taken up sewing so I could keep these jeans alive and somedays I wonder if it is all for naught. I've got the money to buy a new pair, but the minute I do, I'm using my financial blessings to acknowledge death, not life. We all know there are so many other things I could do with money than support the cycle of life and death. And even if I do buy a pair of jeans, somebody could use them a lot more than I could.

Please don't misunderstand me church, I'm not suggesting we are not part of Christ's body if we buy a new pair of jeans or a new sofa. I obviously buy new things, as you see on my face. I share my sewing story, because one story can prompt another. And stories prompt ideas. In this world, life is birthed from death, but if I tell you my story and you are inspired, then newness was birthed not from death, but from other newness. Life begets life; not dog eat dog.

Besides, it isn't for me to judge precisely what you should and should not do with your blessings. Remember, I don't give answers from the pulpit. Instead, I share so we can work together. And I suggest we maintain a messianic vision of newness and life without death and obsolescence. For me, that newness means sewing patches on my jeans until I look like a slob, while those around me wear nice things--even in church, because one day somebody might come into this congregation who cannot afford nice clothes and I want them to feel just as comfortable as the visitors who come in dressed to the nines. And although my clothes look like they're dying, inside I am alive, because Jesus lives in me, because I am a part of the messiah.

But I can only be a part of the messiah with you. We can only do it together. I'm going to sew patches on my jeans and eat food with the hungry, food I get from that house over there.

What are you going to do? And I say "you" not to exclude myself or accuse you, but rather to emphasize the individual aspect. Like Jonah and Jesus are you going to bring God's love to the most surprising of peoples? Who would it surprise you to find God loving? Who would you be mad for God to love? A specific person? Someone of a certain religion? Someone of another race, ethnicity, nationality, skin tone, language, or sexuality? Those of another political party? People who use words we don't use? Those with a certain amount of money--rich or poor? Maybe people whose sins are not your sins--thieves, murderers, sexual offenders? People who don't believe what you do, do things you don't do, or approve things of which you don't approve? Are you going to see them with a messianic vision? A vision that forces you to look past stereotypes? Are you going to see them as God sees them, as God's beloved?

And what are we going to do together? Alone we can only do so much. I can sew poorly and eat with the hungry while you heal the sick and give money to the poor. But together, friends--together we can do things greater than what Jesus did, because together we are who is greater than Jonah. Together we can establish the kingdom of God on this earth.

It is a "messianic age [and] we are a messianic people." The time for the kingdom is now and the place for it is everywhere. "It is found every time an offense is forgiven, every time a stranger is made welcome, every time an enemy is embraced, every time the least among us is lifted up, every time the law is made to serve justice, every time a prophetic voice is raised against injustice, every time the law and the prophets are summed up by love" (John Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?).

We must neither faint nor be crushed until we have established justice in the earth (Is. 42:1-4). We must do our small things--sewing patches and volunteering, serving each other and serving those who will never ever step inside this building. And together we must do great things, tirelessly breaking down systems of oppression and liberating the peoples under them.

We will neither grow faint nor be crushed until we have established justice in the earth. Friends, that's what we, the church, do together. Jesus didn't complete justice when he walked on this earth, but he is doing it now with and through us.

Our task remains before us: to love and establish justice through our individual and corporate lives. I'm going to start by sewing patches and eating with the hungry. But I want to do more. I know other people here want to do more, to see their little things be multiplied like loaves and fishes. They don't just want to help serve large meals to people who don't need to be served, especially when benevolences are cut in the church's budget every year. It isn't that they don't want to serve these meals, but that they want more--they want to take the life in this church and move it into the streets instead of waiting for the streets to come in here, because, let's face it. The streets aren't going to come to us. Like Jonah and Jesus, we have to go to them.

I've heard the voices of people in this church, like voices crying out in the wilderness, searching for something more and for God. I've heard their voices like the labor pains of something great being birthed in them.

Share with me and others the stories of your messianic vision and your messianic actions. You aren't the only person in this church who wants more but doesn't know how to do it. You aren't the only one struggling with the pains of birthing Christ in your life. You aren't the only one who needs to motivate and be motivated, to inspire and be inspired to more.

Now look out the window.

Look around you.

Tell me what you see.


A prayer:

God, in your mercy accept our offerings to your purpose and our self-sacrifices to you--swallow us into the innards of your love and spew us out to take your kingdom everywhere in this world.


Go and be aware of what surrounds you. Look at it with messianic vision and tell your sisters and brothers what you see, so together we can use life to birth life and we can refresh each other and neither grow faint nor weary until we establish love and justice all around us. In the name of the Holy Parent, the Holy Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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