Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What is a Saint?

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 221
John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints but what exactly is a saint anyway?

The word we derive the name “saint” from means, “set apart, sacred, and holy.” The saints are the “holy ones” or those who are set apart or elect from the entire world. In the broadest sense, a saint is anyone who has been set apart and called by God through baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In that sense “saint” is just another name for a Christian. We are all holy and set apart by God, we are all justified and accounted righteous by faith, and we all are sanctified by the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us. This is why Paul in his Epistles can address those he is writing to simply as “saints.”

Were they all perfect examples of holiness and piety? No way! Paul and the other Apostles often have to severely admonish them. It is the imputed righteousness of Christ that makes them holy. They are still working out their salvation with fear and trembling, and yet, by faith, they are already justified before God. They are already proclaimed to be what they are in the process of becoming. As our reading from 1 John says,

“Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

However, these days, the more common use of the name “saint” refers to an individual who has attained an exceptional level of sanctification, whose life is an example of holiness that we can follow with confidence and who now dwells in the presence of God. These are those the scriptures refer to as, “the saints in light.” We “saints” on earth aspire to their example. We are being strengthened and equipped that we might share in their glorious inheritance. 

These are the ones we read about in our reading from Revelation, standing before the throne of God, robed in white with palm branches in their hands, symbols of victory. They are those who have come out of the great ordeal and have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They are the Martyrs who have given their lives for their testimony.

John’s Revelation was given to the church in a time of intense persecution and conflict. This vision was meant to inspire and encourage the saints on earth who were suffering. John is describing for them those who have persevered through the struggle who are now exalted in God’s presence.

Likewise, the author of Hebrews encourages us to endure hardship and to, “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  He tells us that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.”

The pursuit of holiness, through which God calls us to be saints, is like a great race or athletic contest. The saints in light, the white robed army of martyrs, are those who have crossed the finish line and are cheering us on from the other side. Their eyes are upon us, they pray and intercede for us as our allies in the struggle for truth and justice.

Someone recently asked me, “If the saints can see us, do they see our pain and hurt? And if so, does that bring pain and suffering to them?”

That is a great question! My first thought is that the saints do indeed grieve over suffering and wrong on Earth. For Instance Rev 6 depicts the martyrs as crying out to God for justice,

They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?"

The clear implication from John’s vision is that the saints do indeed see and grieve over our struggles here on earth. In particular they grieve over the delay of justice for the oppressed. Could they be truly good if they didn’t?

It sometimes is suggested that the Saints in heaven are too busy glorifying God and enjoying his presence to be concerned with us or our affairs on earth.  I don’t think this is correct. The heaven they enjoy is not escapism and endless fun. That is Disneyland! We shouldn’t picture the Saints as lounging about in some epicurean paradise far removed from the miseries of the world.

Does our love of God make us more or less concerned about the evils of the world? If in this world holiness means a growing passion to see the righteousness of God established here on earth, how could it be any different for the Saints in light?

Do not the scriptures tell us that God also grieves over the wickedness of the world? That his wrath is kindled against sin? That he mourns with those who mourn? Why should we expect any less of the saints?

And yet they never despair because they are in the presence of God. He is their comfort and endless consolation. He wipes away every tear from their eyes. The saints have an unconquerable hope and joy in God’s final victory. However, they are restless for its fulfillment. Their joy will not be complete until all of us are gathered in, all evil made right, and the New Heavens and the New Earth established.
In Revelation Chapter 19, John describes the fall of Babylon, the overthrow of evil in the world. Where are the Saints? Are they off playing harps on a cloud someplace? No! They are watching and rejoicing because their hopes are being realized. John says,

I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:“Hallelujah!Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,   for true and just are his judgments.He has condemned the great prostitute    who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

What should we conclude from this? True holiness does not take us out from the world, but it turns our hearts to its good and its redemption. The salvation of the world is the passion of the saints because it is the passion of God and his Son Jesus Christ. It should be our passion too.

What is a Saint? A Saint is someone who is called out by God, made holy, and empowered to be an advocate for love and justice in the world, to intercede and pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Assurance of Immortality: A Sermon for All Souls Day

On March 31, 1848 in Hydesville New York,  two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, reported that they had made contact with the spirit of someone long departed. This spirit was said to be able to communicate with the sisters through rapping noises or knocking sounds that were audible to anyone present. The two sisters soon became a sensation, being taken in by a Quaker couple named Amy and IsaacPosts who took the sisters on tour to cities like Rochester, Schenectady, Troy, Albany, and of course New York City.

In 1888 the Fox sisters admitted that their communication with the dead was all a hoax. They later, however, recanted their recantation! Despite this blow to their credibility, the cat was already out of the bag and all over the United States and Europe the curious were attending séances and consulting spirit mediums.

Historians often mark this as the beginning of the modern religious movement called, “Spiritualism” which is characterized by the belief that the spirits of the dead have both the ability and the desire to communicate with the living.

The source of the popularity of such beliefs seems to be an anxiousness about death and an eagerness to confirm, through practical experience, that their really is a life after death. Even in recent times books like, “Heaven is for Real” about a young boy’s near death experience and journey to Heaven, sell millions of copies. We want some assurance that our departed loved ones are in a better place. We want assurance that this world is not all that there is. We want to believe the soul survives death.

It is no accident that Spiritualism began to flourish during a time when confidence in the existence of God and a spiritual dimension to life was being challenged by advances in the natural sciences. Confidence in the established church was also declining and so people began to search desperately for some kind of comfort from other sources.

Christianity has always strongly discouraged the use of mediums or occult techniques to contact the dead, but we have at least this is common with spiritualism: we believe that there is more to life than meets the eye and that there is a life beyond death. A strong attraction for Christianity has always been the hope of eternal life and victory over death through Jesus Christ.

When we commit our loved ones to the grave we do so, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.”

We also have this is common with the spiritualist; we believe that human beings, by the grace of God, have been endowed with an immoral soul. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because of the possibility of fellowship with God in eternity, but it also means that our choices have eternal consequences.  C.S. Lewis, as always, puts it very eloquently:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long, we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealing with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

For those of us who are grieving the loss of loved ones, the immortality of the soul has further implications. It means that the core of the person we loved, the part of them that makes them who they are, has survived their death.

As our reading from the Book of Wisdom says,

 “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.  They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction.  But they are in peace.”

But what of the spiritualist notion that spirits continue to evolve and advance beyond death? Does this belief have anything in common with the Christian faith? Many believe that at death the tree lies where it fell as it were. This life is the time God has given for us to know and love him and to advance in his grace.

But how many of us die in a perfect state of sanctification? Surely there is much more we should expect from the grace of God. What also should we make of the church’s long practice of prayers for the departed?

We offer our prayers, and present before God the atoning death of his son Jesus Christ in the holy sacrifice of the mass, that he might receive them more and more into the presence of his light and his love. We ask that everything that is impure or unholy in them might be purged by his fire and washed in the blood of the cross.

We trust that the good work that God began in them in this life might be brought to completion on the Day of Jesus Christ.

There are cultural constraints, physical weaknesses, and psychological temperaments that impede our progress in this life, but at the dividing of soul from body these will be no more. Yet I have little doubt that there will be a moral and spiritual learning process that most of us will undergo when the veil and entanglements of this world are lifted. It stands to reason that we may need to learn to walk in that world just as we needed to learn to walk in this one. Our prayers are meant to assist those we love in that growth.

Even after our death we continue to press forward to the upward call of God in Jesus Christ. It is not merely the immortality of the soul that is the bedrock of Christian hope, but the resurrection of the dead. We long to be further clothed in glory.

Those who are looking for a firm and practical confirmation of the reality of God and the hope of life beyond death should cling to this practical assurance, Christ is risen! His tomb is empty and the stone is rolled away!

The amazing truth of the resurrection as a historical event provides much more solid assurance than any spirit rappings. The testimony of the apostles, saints, and martyrs is more trustworthy than any sisters from New York or any spirit medium. The hope and assurance the spiritualist longs for is found only in Jesus Christ.

Saint Paul declares, 

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”

We can be confident that although we are separated by death, we remain spiritually connected in the undivided body of Christ. The saints on earth and the saints in heaven are one body and one fellowship. We will stand with them in the resurrection of the body on the last day.

I leave you with the beautiful words of the catholic theologian Karl Rahner,

The great and sad mistake of many people...is to imagine that those whom death has taken, leave us.  They do not leave us.  They remain!  Where are they?  In the darkness?  Oh, no!  It is we who are in darkness.  We do not see them, but they see us.  Their eyes, radiant with glory, are fixed upon our eyes...Oh, infinite consolation!  Though invisible to us, our dead are not absent...They are living near us, transfigured...into light, into power, into love.

May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercies of God, rest in peace. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Saint Paul's Remedies for Anxiety

Philippians 4:1-9

What do you worry about? I’m sure if I took a survey of this congregation, no one would have any difficulty answering that question. We all worry and we all feel anxious for the future at times.

Each of us is touched by the ordinary stresses of life. Work, family, bills to pay, errands to run, health concerns, political concerns, religious and spiritual questions…Everything that makes life worthwhile and rewarding can also be a source of anxiety.

While all of us have anxieties and worries, it is a chronic and even debilitating problem for some us. Whether it is by temperament, biology, or upbringing, some of us suffer from various anxiety disorders. In fact it is pretty common and increasingly more so. Recent statistics suggest that 40 million Americans over the age of 18, or roughly 18% of the population suffer from an anxiety disorder. Many of those who suffer receive no treatment at all.  

It is not God’s will that we should overcome or oppressed by anxiety. Although a certain degree of worry is inevitable, he does not wish us to succumb to our anxieties or be defeated by them. For chronic sufferers of anxiety, therapy and medication can help. They are a good thing and should never be stigmatized or dismissed.  The Wisdom of Sirach says, “Give the doctor his due!” and “The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them.”

As Christians we also should gain strength and encouragement from our faith. Saint Paul exhorts those who are anxious, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything!”

He assures us that we are always—even now—under the gentle guidance of our heavenly Father and in the loving presence of Christ through the power of the Spirit. If you could see Jesus walking beside you in your struggles, if you always felt the power of the Holy Spirit, if you had a continual sense of your Father’s watchful gaze and knew that everything he has is yours, wouldn’t you feel you feel less anxious? Yet we walk by faith and not by sight. We don’t always experience these realities in a tangible way but we are asked to trust them by faith.

Paul tells us—he commands us actually—to not be anxious about anything! Now one thing we must not do in response to this commandment is to become anxious about our anxiousness! Some of us worry about our worry. We worry that our worries are some kind indication that our faith is deficient.  The fact is, however, that God does not expect us to free ourselves from anxiety by sheer force of willpower. That is not what Saint Paul is asking us to do here. Instead he gives us practical strategies for combating anxiety on a spiritual level.

Philippians 4 is a treatment plan, and like any treatment plan it is not a magical cure nor should we expect instant and immediate results. It is a plan for the long term. I want to highlight three strategies that Saint Paul believes that we should turn to again and again in our struggle with anxiety.

The first is to rejoice! Saint Paul is emphatic in his commandment, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!”

There is a scene from HBO’s John Adams miniseries that I think of often. Adams faced tremendous challenges in his life. He helped lead the American Revolution for independence, he served the newly formed nation as president during a time of anxiety and uncertainty, he lost his daughter to cancer, and he suffered a strained relationship with his alcoholic son. In the scene he is an old man giving advice to his other son Thomas on an evening stroll. He says, 


“Still, still I am not weary of life. Strangely. I have hope. You take away hope and what remains? What pleasures? I have seen a queen of France with eighteen million livres of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure, added to all the glitter of her jewels, did not impress me as much as that little shrub,” He says pointing with his walking stick to a small white flower in the field. He continues, “Now my mother always said that I never delighted enough in the mundane, but now I find that if I look at even the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way.”

He begins to speak to himself in his revelry, “Rejoice evermore. Rejoice Evermore!” Thomas looks at him puzzled and he snaps back, “It’s a phrase from St. Paul, you fool! REJOICE EVERMORE! I wish that had always been in my heart and on my tongue. I am filled with an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees right here in admiration.”

When you look back on your life in your final days, what do you think you will be more likely to regret? Will you regret that you didn’t spend enough time worrying about the future, what people thought of you…or will you regret that you didn’t take enough time to rejoice in the simple pleasures of life?

Neither Saint Paul nor John Adams were strangers to anxiety; they both knew great sorrow and loss, and yet their advice to us is to “Rejoice Evermore!”

The second strategy Saint Paul offers for dealing with anxiety is to in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.

It goes without saying that if we wish to have a more abiding faith in God’s presence with us, that we need to grow and deepen in our prayer life. Do we pour out our grief and care to God in prayer? Are we ever, like John Adams, filled with the irresistible urge to fall on our knees in admiration, or are we contented to have a merely formal relationship with him? We should regularly open our hearts to God like we would a trusted friend or a wise father.

Why should we make our request known to God? Doesn’t he know what we need already? Yes, of course he does, but our supplications are more for our own sake rather than God’s. He wants to bring our concerns to him, and in so doing to trust them to his provision and care. He wants to carry our burdens. If I take a heavy load from my back and hand it to another, it means I am no longer carrying it! I have entrusted it to the strength of another. That is what God wants us to do with our worries and anxieties. He wants us to place them in his hands.

The third strategy for dealing with anxiety that Saint Paul offers us is about thinking about what we think about,   

"whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

In recent years, many people have found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helpful in combating anxiety. The goal here is to help individuals change unhelpful patterns of thinking, behavior, and self-talk and to replace them with healthier patterns. The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we think and feel.

Saint Paul wasn’t a cognitive psychologist, but some of the strengths of that approach are reflected in his wisdom here. What could be better than to fill our minds with the beauty, the goodness, the love, and perfection of God? Instead of dwelling on what is wrong with us, we should turn instead to one in whose light we are revealed, because in him is our joy and salvation. Yes, we need to honest about our sin and our need for redemption, but we don’t dwell on our wretchedness or guilt but rather on God’s grace and mercy.

Think about these things Saint Paul says, give your cares to God, rejoice evermore, and the peace that surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds from all assaults of anxiety and despair.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What is it?

The name that the Israelites gave to the bread from heaven, the food that God provided, was Manna, which means, “What is it?” Our text says,
In the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

What is it? That is the question I want us to dwell on this morning. The Lord taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” What has he given you? What has the Lord provided? It is so easy to lose sight of all the ways God has been faithful to us. It is so much easier to focus on what we don’t have and to dwell on our struggles.

When God’s people were wandering in the wilderness they all began to grumble and complain. They actually wished that they were dead. They began to look back longingly on their slavery in Egypt. At least there they had food!
They forgot how when they were groaning under the unbearable weight of their oppression in Egypt, God delivered them and led them out with a mighty outstretched hand. He showed them signs and wonders. He split the Red Sea so that they walked through on dry ground. But what had he done for them lately?

The spiritual discipline of counting our blessings is so important. I can sometimes be guilty of catastrophic thinking. When things start to get difficult I assume the worst. I can become anxious and worried about the future. Sometimes in those situations, if I can actually step away from my worries for a moment, it helps to be able to think back on how God has helped me in the past and to take an accounting of what he is doing at the moment. 

I remember how lonely I was at one point in my life. How I thought I would never find someone to love, but then I met April, who for some crazy reason agreed to marry me.

You might laugh at this one. When April and I were first married we lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment. We were so happy to have our own place together. After a year though, I began to feel dissatisfied. Would we ever live in a house? Would I ever make a decent living?

In seminary I worried if I would ever find a job. When I found a great curacy in Cooperstown, I worried that I would never find a job as a rector. I worried that I wouldn’t be happy with the place God sent me.

Now, I consider the gorgeous rectory where my beautiful family lives—much nicer than anyplace I have lived before. I look around at this beautiful, historic, church building that I have the pleasure of serving in. I think about you all—the wonderful congregation here at Saint George’s—and I feel blessed. The Lord has been good to me. The Lord provides. Why should I not trust that he will continue to provide?

The same incident recorded in our reading from Exodus is also described in the book of Psalms. Psalm 78 describes it this way,

For they had no faith in God, *
nor did they put their trust in his saving power.
So he commanded the clouds above *
and opened the doors of heaven.
He rained down manna upon them to eat *
and gave them grain from heaven.
So mortals ate the bread of angels; *
he provided for them food enough.

God was angry and frustrated with his people, so what did he do? He blessed them! He gave them all the food they needed. What is the meaning of this? I think it must be similar to what Saint Paul meant when he said we should show love to those who wrong us, because in so doing we will pour burning coals upon their heads. God’s extravagant generosity is a rebuke to us because it exposes our lack of gratitude. When we consider how generous God has been to us we should feel convicted and resolve to be more faithful. And yet how does the psalm continue?
But they did not stop their craving, though the food was still in their mouths”

Sometimes we are not happy unless what we have is better than what somebody else has. Be honest with yourselves and you will see that it is true!
Take a look at the parable in our Gospel lesson. It is a story about a man who hires some laborers to work in his vineyard. In those days, in that place, for many people, work was extremely hard to come by. They were living day to day. They never knew where their next meal would come from. Crowds of men would gather in the marketplace just hoping someone would offer them a day’s work. These particular men were very fortunate to have been chosen that day. They were completely at the mercy of the men who hired them—no labor unions back then—but fortunately this man agreed to pay them a fair wage.

What happens? He finds some other guys at the end of the day and hires them on too. The thing is, he pays them the same. He pays these guys an entire day’s wage for one hour’s work at the end of the day. This was extremely generous, but it really upsets all the other guys. Suddenly they aren’t so happy about what he gave them. He asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

That is another good question. Are we envious over God’s generosity to other people? God owes us nothing and yet he has given us everything we have. Why not give thanks for what he has provided rather than begrudging his generosity to others?

Sometimes we don’t even know we want something until we see someone else enjoying it. Have you ever seen children at play? They all fight over the same toy! There can be a thousand toys available but they want to have the one that the other kid has. Psychologists have a word for this. They call it mimetic desire. The old fashioned word for it is envy, and we really haven’t out grown it yet.

When I consider how petty I can sometimes be, I am humbled by Saint Paul’s words in our Epistle today. He writes, “To me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”  What more could he possible need? He has Christ! He has the gift of salvation and communion with God in his Lord. He has the ultimate gift that even death cannot separate from him. What treasure in this world can be compared to Christ? In the words of the great hymn,

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,Look full in His wonderful face,And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,  In the light of His glory and grace

What is it? What is it that God has given you? Bread from heaven! Christ has given you his own body and blood, his whole self, body, soul, and divinity. He has rained down blessing upon us more than we deserve. The question we should be asking is not, “What has God done for me lately,” but, “What have I done for God lately? What can I do? What can I give to show my gratitude to him for his extravagant generosity? 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Is it me or does it seem like half of every new film or television series is based on a superhero? Just this summer we saw Wonder Woman brought to the silver screen, yet another take on Spider-man, and now the team of super-power heroes the Defenders on Netflix. As a long time comic book fan, I appreciate this trend. I have always loved superheroes. As soon as I was old enough to grab things in my little infant hands, I was reaching for my older brother’s action figures.

It seems I am not alone in my enthusiasm. We never seem to get tired of telling stories about extraordinary heroes. Superheroes are just one, uniquely modern, expression of our obsession. In America we had the frontier hero or the outlaw hero of the Wild West. Across the pond they had King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Ancient history is also full of mythical heroes and adventurers.

This morning’s Old Testament reading from Exodus is the beginning of the epic tale of one of the Bible’s greatest heroes, Moses. The Hebrew Scriptures declare Moses to be the greatest of all the prophets saying, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face (Deut 34:10).”
 Perhaps no other figure in all of Holy Scripture—with the exception of our Lord himself—looms as large. From the very beginning Moses’ story is extraordinary.

There are certain definite patterns across time and culture that the story of a great hero tends to follow. This idea was made popular by a best selling book and PBS special by Joseph Campbell called, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell wasn’t the first to notice such patterns. He was very much influenced by the work of a psychologist, Otto Rank, who wrote a book The Myth of the Birth of the Hero in which he outlined some of the parallels in the birth narratives of great heroes.

He noted that the hero tends to be the son of distinguished parents. His origin is preceded by great danger, difficulties, or obstacles. There is often a prophecy, dream, or oracle cautioning against his birth and warning danger. Typically, he is surrendered to the water or other elements to escape danger, taken in by strangers or even suckled by an animal, Finally, he discovers his true identity when he comes of age and defeats the enemy.  

Consider a couple modern examples. Harry Potter is the magical son of two wizards. Around the time of his birth there is a prophecy that he will be the one to defeat the evil wizard Voldemort. The evil wizard, threatened by the child, attempts to kill him as an infant. Harry’s parents sacrifice their lives to save him, he is raised by his non-magical aunt and uncle with no idea of his magical heritage until he receives an invitation to Hogwarts school of wizardry, and begins the journey that will result in his final confrontation, and defeat of Voldemort.

Jor-El is a scientist living on the planet Krypton. He discovers the imminent demise of his home world, but nobody believes him until it is too late. He constructs a spaceship to save his infant son Kal-El and blast him off into space just before Krypton’s destruction. The spacecraft lands in Smallville, Kansas where the baby is taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent who raise him as their own and name him Clark. The alien rays of Earth’s son give young Clark Kent exceptional powers. No one knows the truth of his origin or his remarkable power until he comes of age to defend truth, justice, and the American way as Super-Man.

Can you see a similar pattern is Moses’ story? Moses was born during a time of great peril for his people. The tide of opinion in Egypt had turned against the Jewish people and they were oppressed and enslaved.  

Moses was the third child of his parents. Their oldest was Miriam who was destined to become a great prophetess, their second was Aaron who would be a great priest, but their third was Moses who was destined to be the savior and leader of his people.

Before Moses’ birth, Pharaoh had commanded the death of all the newborn sons of Israel. The Talmud, the Jewish commentary on scripture, suggests that the reason for his horrible decree was because his soothsayers warned him that a great champion and liberator was about to be born to the Jews. It also says that at Moses’ birth the room was full of holy light.

Fearing for his life, his mother put him in a basket and hid him in the reeds of the Nile. Baby Moses was taken in by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him as her own. He was raised as a prince in Egypt. His real mother was secretly his nurse maid. Thus begins the epic tale of the man who would grow up to be the deliverer of Israel, the giver of the law, and the greatest of all the prophets. 

These stories captivate us because they tap into the hidden longings of our heart. They are a rumor of transcendence that cause us to be discontent with the ordinary and mundane and instead aspire to a life of heroism.  We have a sense that this world is not our true home, but that we have a father in heaven, and a great destiny. We sense that there are forces of evil that are always trying to destroy us and keep us from achieving that greatness. Finally we have the hope that we will at last triumph, that God is with us and will not allow us to fail if we trust in him.
But for all that we admire and emulate the hero, there is also part of us that knows that if we are ever to achieve such greatness, we ourselves need a hero, we need a deliverer, and champion. All of our stories speak to this longing, but I would also suggest that they direct us to the true fulfillment of all our longings, our savior Jesus Christ.

Moses knew that he wasn’t the one. He knew that he was only the opening act; the one who would prepare the way for one greater than himself.  He told his people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen…[The Lord said to me]
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”

Jesus is the one that Moses foretold. He is the hero with a thousand faces, the myth become fact, and the Word made flesh.  He is the child of the woman clothed with the sun, as Revelation describes him. The dragon wanted to eat her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son of whom it was said, “He will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was taken up to God and to his throne.

As Matthew’s gospel tells us, his birth was heralded by magi who read its portents in the stars. The wicked king Herod, threatened by the prophecy, had every new born son in Bethlehem slaughtered, but the family, warned in a dream, escaped to Egypt. As a man Jesus would deliver his people from bondage to sin, conquer death, and become the savior of the world.

We live in dangerous and frightening times, as indeed all Christians have before. We see injustice all around us, and want to see a deliverer like Moses come and set the people free. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. We want a defender to keep us safe. We want to be heroic ourselves and stand against what is wrong and for what is right. Jesus Christ is the hero that our hearts long for. The law was given by Moses, grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Messiah Son of Joseph?

Genesis 45:1-15

It can be very beneficial to engage with and learn from thoughtful people of good will with whom we have deep disagreements. I don't mean the kind corrupt and offensive views of the Neo-Nazis and white supremacist gathered in Charlottesville this weekend. There is a difference. Such evil must be denounced without equivocation.  I am speaking of those of good will.

For instance,  I have been reading a lot of Jewish interpretation of scripture lately. In many ways, this has been a largely unexplored world of thought for me.  It is fascinating because it is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.

I’m particularly interested to see how Jewish theologians read the prophecies of the messiah. These texts are extremely familiar to Christians because we believe they refer to Jesus Christ, but of course, non-Christian Jews read these texts differently.

For example, some prophecies suggest a “suffering servant” who will be a sign of judgement against the people, who will come lowly and riding on a donkey, and who will lay down his life in battle against Israel’s enemies. Others suggest a victorious king, who will liberate his people, and reign forever.

These appear to be two contradictory teachings, which is why some Jewish interpretations suggest two different Messiahs extending from Jacob’s two wives Leah and Rachel. One messiah from the tribe of Joseph—Messiah ben Yosef or “Messiah son of Joseph”—a suffering servant who will lay down his life—and a second, kingly, Messiah from the house of Judah--who will bring redemption to Israel and reign forever. The second Messiah is greater than the first.

I find this idea fascinating in light of the themes that have emerged from our readings from Genesis this summer. 

Throughout the history of Israel we can see the children of Leah and the children of Rachel compete for ascendency. It is Moses and Aaron, both descendants of Leah’s son Levi, who lead the people out of exile, but it is Joshua a descendant of Rachel’s son Joseph that leads the people into the promised land.

Saul a descendant of Rachel is anointed king, but the kingdom is taken from him and given to David the descendant of Leah’s son Judah.

Following the death of David’s son Solomon, the kingdom becomes divided in two with the northern kingdom ruled by the descendants of Joseph and the southern kingdom ruled by the descendants of Judah.

Jesus himself is from the tribe of Judah, he is the promised messiah, the son of David, who will unite the divided people of Israel. But both the descendants of Joseph and the descendants of David bear witness to him in their own unique way.

The concept of a Messiah son of Joseph is Jewish rather than Christian, but it resonates with the gospel. Jesus is not a descendant of Rachel’s son Joseph, but he is the adopted son of a different Joseph. Not much is known about Mary’s husband and Jesus’ guardian, but we do know that like the Joseph of Genesis, God spoke to him in his dreams. God speaks to Joseph four times in the gospel of Matthew concerning Mary’s son Jesus.

The comparisons between the story of Joseph in Genesis and Jesus’ own story, however, are even more striking. It has often been pointed out by Christian commentators that Joseph is a type of Christ. 

Consider some of the parallels between Joseph and Jesus. Both were born by God’s gracious intervention. Joseph was the son of a woman who was thought to be barren. Jesus was the son of a virgin.

Joseph was the shepherd of his father’s flock. Jesus is called the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep of his pasture.

Joseph was the son of Jacob’s old age, the son of his beloved wife Rachel. His father demonstrated his favor to Joseph by clothing him with a coat of many colors (This is the famous coat that Andrew Lloyd Webber produced a musical about, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat). Jesus was likewise the son of his Father’s love, exalted and glorified above all others. Just last week we celebrated the Transfiguration in which Jesus’ coat became dazzling white and shown with heavenly glory. The Father spoke from Heaven, “This is my Son, my chosen, Listen to him!”

Joseph proclaimed to his brothers that God showed him in a dream that he would be exalted and they would bow down and serve him. Perhaps somewhat understandably, Joseph’s brothers saw him as a precocious brat. They envied the favor their father showed him. Jesus also predicted his own glory and exaltation. His own siblings thought he was delusional and the religious leaders envied and despised him.

Joseph’s own brothers conspired to kill him. He was stripped of his garment, thrown into a pit, and handed over to wild beasts.  Joseph’s life was ultimately sparred; he was lifted out of the pit and sold to Ismaelites for twenty pieces of silver.

The chief priests and rabbis also conspired to kill Jesus. He was betrayed by one of his closest friends and handed over to gentiles for 30 pieces of silver. He was stripped of his robe and beaten. Unlike Joseph, he was cruelly executed, but just as Joseph was pulled out of the pit and delivered from death, Jesus rose from the dead conquering death.

Just as Jesus was exalted in his death and resurrection, so also was Joseph exalted. He was sold as a slave in Egypt but there he distinguished himself and was exalted to Pharoah’s right hand. What his brothers intended for evil God used for good. As a lord in Egypt, Joseph became his family’s deliverer in a time of famine. In the same way, Jesus’ betrayal and execution became the source of deliverance for all people.

The parallels between the story of Jesus and the story of Joseph are in fact so numerous that we simply do not have time to discuss them all here. As you can see, although Jesus is the Son of David, in a profound way he is also the son of Joseph. Jesus is both the victorious king and the suffering servant. Both dimensions of the messianic expectation find their completion in him.

He is both the chosen and rejected, the cursed and the blessed.

What can look on the surface like two contradictory concepts—suffering and exaltation, defeat and victory—are unified in one individual. What can easily be seen as two individuals, two messiahs, is actually one. Jesus came first lowly and riding on a donkey, he came to suffer reproach, to be rejected, and to die. But Jesus will come again in glory as the King of Kings to reunite the people of Israel and to reign forever. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Unloved Wife

Genesis 29:15-28

One of the biggest obstacles modern people have to reading the Bible is that the people and settings of the stories seem so foreign to us. When we read Genesis for instance, we find ourselves transported into a time and place where being the first-born son means everything, where women are bartered like property, and it is not at all unusual for a man to have multiple wives. It is offensive to our sensibilities. What relevance could these stories have to people here and now? Haven’t we outgrown this kind of stuff?

First, by way of preface for today’s lesson, let me start by saying that when it comes to the cultural norms of the ancient world the bible is descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, the stories are just telling us what the world in that time and place was like, they aren’t necessarily being held up as a model for how things should be today.

In fact, if we actually observe how these stories unfold, the Bible presents the systems of polygamy and patriarchy as a complete disaster. They lead only to heartbreak, jealousy, and violence.

Secondly, we should be honest about whether or not we really have outgrown this kind of stuff. Although our culture is much different from the ancient culture of the Bible, human nature really hasn’t changed all that much.

In our story today, there are two sisters, the daughters of Laban, Leah and Rachel. Our translation says, “Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel.” This just dosen’t get it right, and so you actually miss one of the main points. Most translations say that Leah’s eyes were weak or delicate. In other words, Leah had an eye disorder. She was either cross-eyed or she had some kind of astigmatism that made her squint. It would be more accurate to say, “Leah was an awkward looking wallflower, but Rachel was a real knock out with a killer body.” Naturally, Jacob likes the pretty one!

Aren’t you glad that we have outgrown this sort of thing, and we now live in a culture where the value and worth of women is not based on their physical appearance? Maybe this story is a bit more current than we care to admit…

Leah, lived her whole life in the shadow of her more beautiful and alluring younger sister. Jacob was utterly infatuated with Rachel, but Leah was invisible. Laban has to trick Jacob into marrying her. This is a bit of poetic justice by the way. Jacob, who tricked his father and stole his brother’s blessing is getting a taste of his own medicine. It’s hard not to see Laban’s explanation as a jab, “around here we don’t give to the younger before the elder.”

Jacob does eventually get to marry Rachel too, however, in return for another seven years of labor. These two sisters were married to one man, and they competed for his affection, but the text tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more. Leah, was desperate for her husband’s approval, but he loved Rachel more even though Leah was the sister that gave him more sons.

Jacob may have favored Rachel, but God favored Leah. The text says, “When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless.”

Leah was the girl that nobody wanted, but God loved her and he blessed her. God doesn’t judge by the same standards that the world judges. He doesn’t value the things that the world values. God is in the habit of taking the side of the powerless, the weak, and despised of the world.

Leah’s unhappy marriage should seem somewhat familiar to us from a couple chapters back. It is surprisingly reminiscent of Jacob’s upbringing. Although Jacob was the chosen of God, his father Isaac loved his twin brother Esau more.

Esau famously despised his birthright and handed it over to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Jacob and Esau are not so unalike in this regard. Jacob was born with the spiritual blessing of God, destined to be the bearer of God’s promise, and yet he despised this blessing and instead sought what his brother had. He wanted the inheritance and status that came with being the firstborn.

Esau had what Jacob wanted, his father’s love, his birthright, and his blessing. Rachel had what Leah wanted, the love and favor of her husband Jacob.
Both were able take what they wanted by deception, but it ultimately left them unfulfilled.
Isn’t it ironic? Leah and Jacob are so much alike, but Jacob only has eyes for Rachel. Leah is the wife that God provided, but she is not the wife that Jacob wanted.

God favors Leah first and more abundantly with children, but he doesn’t forget to show mercy to Rachel too. Although she struggles with infertility, she eventually has a son—who unsurprisingly is Jacob’s favorite—Joseph with his coat of many colors.

Together these two sisters, Leah and Rachel, are the mothers of the nation of Israel. We can trace their lineage and see how this story continues to ripple throughout the rest of the Biblical narrative.

Israel is God’s chosen people, the bearer of God’s blessing for the world, but they despise this birthright. They want instead what all the other nations have, a warrior king who will bring them glory and riches. In concession to this demand, God gives them King Saul, a descendant of Rachel. Like Rachel, he is very attractive with a very impressive stature. He is everything a nation would want in a king, but it all goes wrong and he is rejected by God.

In his place, God chooses one of the sons of Jesse—a descendant of Leah’s son Judah—named David. Of all Jesse’s son’s David is the least outwardly impressive, he is a young shepherd boy tending the flock, but God says,  “the LORD sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

It is from the Lineage of Leah, the tribe of Judah, the House of David, that God brings the Messiah Jesus Christ. The people are waiting for a worldly king and champion, someone to thrash their enemies, and restore the worldly glory and splendor of Israel. They want what Rome has, power, status, and the admiration of the world. Instead, they get a suffering Messiah of whom it is written,

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.He was despised and rejected by mankind,a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.Like one from whom people hide their faceshe was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 

Jesus Christ was the messiah that God provided, but he was not the Messiah that Israel wanted.