Sunday, January 24, 2010

This is the Day

Luke 4:14-21
Ordinary Time 3
January 24, 2010
William G. Carter

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In a magazine, there was a cartoon. The cartoon showed three men sitting in a row behind a long table. A microphone has been placed in front of each of them. One man was pictured in long flowing hair and a draped white robe. Another was battered, a wreath of jagged thorns on his head. The third was swarthy, with dark curly hair and a pointed nose. The caption said, "Will the real Jesus Christ please stand?" [David Buttrick, Preaching Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988) 23.]

Everybody sees Jesus from a different angle, including the writers of the New Testament. For Matthew, Jesus is the Teacher of Righteousness. Like Moses, he climbs a mountain and teaches a new Law to his disciples. After Easter, he gathers them on a mountain and gives them a great commission, namely: to follow his teachings.

For the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is an exorcist, constantly battling the powers of evil. Even after Evil nails him to a cross, Jesus emerges from the tomb to continue his saving work. He is the Strong Son of God turned loose in the world.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus comes to reveal God. "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made God known." (John 1:18)

But for the writer of Luke's Gospel, the word that best summarizes the person and work of Jesus is the word "prophet." Jesus is a prophet.

What comes to your mind with the word "prophet"? Do you see a fortune teller? Or the seer who gazes into a crystal ball and predicts Super Bowl scores?

Every Advent, I find myself in New York for a day. I keep my eyes peeled for a person with shaggy hair who walks down Broadway wearing a sandwich-board and screaming "Repent for your sins! The End is near!" A lot of people think that's what a prophet should do: shout at people and make them nervous. As an old-fashioned radio preacher once claimed, "The truest test of prophecy is this: a prophet predicts doom of the sinner."

In the story we heard today, Jesus is a different kind of prophet. He is a biblical prophet. He stands squarely within the tradition of the prophets of Israel. In place of the sandwich board, Jesus wears a prayer shawl. Instead of screaming angry threats, he reads scripture. Rather than standing on the fringe of the community, Jesus sits in the middle of the synagogue, the traditional posture of a preacher. There isn't the slightest hint that his eyes are wild or his hair is shaggy. He issues no burning cry for repentance, nor does he burden people with guilt.

According to the writings of Luke, Jesus is rooted in the faith of Israel. Luke alone says Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day. He reports that Mary and Joseph dedicated the infant Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem. At age twelve, he celebrated Passover in Jerusalem with his family. As an adult, he worships in the synagogue on the Sabbath. When it was his turn to read the scriptures, he was so well-versed in the Bible that he can find his place without using a table of contents.

And Luke says Jesus was a prophet. His role had nothing to do with his appearance. It had little to do with his familiarity with the traditions with Israel. Rather it had everything to do with his sense of timing. The prophet Jesus says, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

That is striking. Jesus could have said "yesterday," as in, "Yesterday, this scripture was fulfilled." Looking backward holds some appeal for us. To believe in God is, in part, an act of memory. We recall everything God has ever done. We remember the creation of the world and the Garden of Eden. We remember getting out of slavery in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, and entering the promised land. We remember Jerusalem, and Babylon, and returning home to Jerusalem. We remember Bethlehem, Golgotha, and the empty tomb. "If I forget you, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth." (Psalm 137:5)

Remembering is an act of faith. This is no idyllic memory of "good old days" that never existed. Look back, and you can see where God's hand has guided us over the years. Our memories can comfort us. "Yesterday" is a secure place to stand.

It's easy to live in the past. All of us do it, even preachers. I have a friend who is a minister. She is a wonderful storyteller. But there's one curious thing about her. The only stories she tells come from her college days. If she wants to speak about love, she tells a story about her first boyfriend in college. If she wants to talk about temptation, she speaks of dormitory parties. If she wants to preach about discovering God's purpose for her life, she speaks about discerning God's will during midterms in chemistry class.

One day somebody asked, "Preacher, why do you tell stories about college?"

She thought about it for a minute and said, "I guess those were the days when I felt most alive. Back in college, I felt very close to God."

"But preacher, that was twenty years ago. Has God has done anything for you since then?"

It is a comfort to live in the past. But that's not what the prophet Jesus said when he spoke in the synagogue. He did not say, "Yesterday the scriptures were fulfilled."

Neither did Jesus say "tomorrow." Maybe we thought he would say, "Tomorrow the scripture will be fulfilled." Or at least he could have said, "Someday the scriptures will be fulfilled." An announcement like that could move our hearts toward hope. It could give us something to anticipate.

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and the world is still a mess. We know it. We wait for God to do something. As someone reminds us, it is no wonder that, in the time of Jesus, all the wonderful stories people told began not with "Once upon a time," but with the words, "When the Messiah comes . . ."

• See a beggar on the street, hollow eyes gazing over an empty cup. "I'm sorry, friend, but someday, when the Messiah comes . . . "

• To every crippled person, with twisted limbs folded beneath him. "I'm sorry, friend, but someday, when the Messiah comes. . ."

• To every prisoner straining after a ray of light in the narrow window. "I'm sorry, but someday, when the Messiah comes . . ."

• To every parent consoling a daughter assaulted by a Roman soldier. "Now, now, child, someday, when the Messiah comes . . ." (Fred B. Craddock, "Hoping or Postponing," National Radio Pulpit, 1978.)

Looking ahead can become a way to live, a way to put our problems in perspective. Every time we see misery, injustice, and poverty, we can say, "Someday God is going to straighten this out. The day is coming when God will set everything right." Just say the word "tomorrow" over and over again. It can galvanize your hope and strengthen your resolve. It can also buy a little time.

One day, a wife said to her husband, "Honey, when are you going to wash those dirty dishes?"

"Oh, don't worry. I'll get to them a little later."

She said, "When will you get to them?"

He said, "Probably later this afternoon. Or maybe tonight. Or perhaps next Tuesday. I'm not sure; but don't worry. Someday I will wash those dishes."

Lazy husbands will tell you: you can get a lot of mileage out of that word "someday."

The people wanted to know, "Jesus, when will God scrub up our dirty world?" I suppose Jesus could have said, "Someday the Kingdom will come." He could have said that, but he didn't.

No, he went into the synagogue instead. It was the same familiar worship service. He looked around the congregation and saw the same faces. He stood and opened the scriptures from the familiar scroll. He found his place in the sixty-first chapter of the prophet Isaiah and read the words, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to proclaim the favor of God." They were the same old words from Isaiah, which announced the same old hopes for the future. Everything was familiar and predictable.

But then, the prophet Jesus hurled a Word that shattered the status quo. The word he said was not "yesterday," and the word was not "tomorrow." The word was "today." Jesus said, "This is the day. The time has come. Today the scriptures are fulfilled."

I pause to remind us that "today" can be a dangerous word. It is the kind of word which creates hatred and opposition. A lot of people refuse to accept "today" as the day for anything. The chief reason? Because it reminds people of what they already know. That's dangerous!

When Martin Luther King Jr. came preaching to the people in our country, he did not say anything new. His message was two-hundred years old: "We hold it to be self-evident, that all people are created equal." Dr. King looked out and saw people who were not treated as equals. He perceived others for whom this truth was not self-evident. So he went from city to city and said, "Today is the day when we will take seriously our own Declaration of Independence." Gunshots rang out and cut him down. Why? What radical act did he commit which took his life? In the tradition of the Bible's prophets, he reminded people of what they already knew and said, "Today is the day."

It is risky to stand up and speak of God in the present tense. When the prophet Jesus said, "Today the scripture is fulfilled," he turned memory into an mission statement. He transformed hope into an assignment. He claimed the beautiful poetry of Isaiah as his job description.

But the question remains: is today the day? Is this day really the day?

Jesus said, "I have come to preach good news to the poor." Well, that is a noble thought, but what about us? The poor don't live on our streets. They don't move in our circles of friends. Even if they did, what kind of good news would we say to them? It is far easier to feed them from a distance, and send a few dented cans of creamed corn from the food pantry. Instead of getting involved, it is possible to perform a small deed to ease the conscience and avoid talking face-to-face…

Jesus said, "I have come to proclaim release to the captives." That is another difficult assignment, because it involves speaking to those in captivity. Some of them are imprisoned behind bars. To proclaim release means to go where they are, and to speak a word that their jailers will not appreciate. Still others are captives in another way, confined by forces such as prejudice or sin. It will not be easy to announce their freedom.

And Jesus said, "I have come to proclaim new sight for the blind." Tell me: do mere words have that kind of power? Can words help people to recover their vision? Can words remove cataracts or focus one's sight? We are only talking about words. What can words do?

And Jesus said, "I have come to liberate the oppressed." Wait a minute! That sounds so political. With every oppressed person, there is an oppressor. For every person who is held down or held back, there is somebody else who is doing the holding. Do we want to get tangled up in setting free the victims and the underdogs? That can be messy work. There are some respectable people we know who could exposed as oppressors. If we get involved, we might lose friends and make enemies. It is far easier to play it safe and hide out in a comfortable church.

Jesus said, "I have come to proclaim the year of God's favor." Why, that be the most difficult task of all. Imagine it: announcing all people are valued by God - not because of what they do, not because of where they live, not because of how much they earn, and not because of the level of their religious activity - they are valued because God is delighted with them. That may be the most difficult announcement a prophet ever makes. Who is going to believe it? The people to whom we are sent are more accustomed to measuring themselves by the world's yardstick and earning their own way. Jesus comes to people who don't ever feel like they measure up, and he announces to them the unrestricted acceptance of God. A lot of people cannot perceive the breadth of such mercy. How can anybody say, "This is the year of God's favor?"

I do not know, except to announce that Jesus said, "Today is the day." Check the calendar: not last Thursday, not next Tuesday. Jesus said, "Today is the time of God."

And he was right.

For anybody who would follow the prophet of Galilee, for anybody who would bear the name of "Christian," today is the acceptable time to share the love and justice of God.

This is the day. Do you believe that?

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Miracles - and Why We Miss Them

John 2:1-11
Epiphany 2 (C)
January 17, 2010
William G. Carter

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

When I was a little boy, about seven or eight years old, I unwrapped a set of magic tricks for Christmas. It came in a big box, with probably twenty-two different tricks. There was an expanding magic wand, a deck of cards, and a few handkerchiefs. Pretty soon, I had practiced up a number of tricks, and decided to put on a show. The auditorium had three chairs – for my mom, my dad, and my sister, who doubled as my assistant. At 7:00, I called them together with a flourish, and announced myself as The Amazing Cartero.

Coming out to polite applause, I fanned out a deck of cards for my father. “Pick a card, any card. I can tell you what it is.” And my assistant squawked, “Every one of the cards is an ace of clubs.”

I ignored her and moved on. The Amazing Cartero would not be distracted. I moved to a card table with three orange cups and a little blue ball. Scrambling them up, I said, “I bet you can’t tell which one hides the ball.” My sister got out of her chair and pointed correct orange cup. One trick after another, she explained them all. My magical career began to fade as she laughed with glee. Sensing my disappointment, my mother said, “Maybe it’s time we make your sister disappear.” As far as I was concerned, that was the best trick of the night. The only problem is she was back again the next morning!

Today we hear a story that sounds like Jesus did a magic trick at a wedding. He turned the water into wine. Hecklers through the ages have tried to explain the trick, or at least to explain it away. “There’s no such thing as a miracle,” they say. “It was a sleight of hand trick, used to win over his first disciples.” Granted, it was a grand miracle of David Copperfield proportions – 180 gallons of sparking water turned into the best Manischewitz. How did Jesus do it? Where did he have the good stuff hidden? If my sister had been there, I’ll bet she would have tried to spill the secret.

What’s so amazing about this miracle is how low-key it is. The mother of Jesus tries to force the episode, but her son shrugs her off. When she gets out of his hair, and the coast is clear, Jesus instructs the catering guys to fill up those old stone jars. Then he does not wave his hands or incant a magic formula. In fact, he doesn’t do anything at all.

Next thing we know, the party manager takes a sip, and then another. He compliments the bridegroom for saving a secret stash of what must have been an awful lot of wine. The whole village was probably there, in generous Middle Eastern tradition. The party had gone on long enough to consume a lot of wine. And off to the side, while few people are paying attention, this strange wedding guest Jesus creates a catering miracle.

We can’t explain what he does. And forget all those sermons you’ve ever heard about this story – there is no reason for why he does this. It’s not because his mother wants him to do it – he brushes her off. Neither does he do this to perpetuate the party, as so many Woodstock-era preachers have tried to prove. There is really nothing useful about this miracle; he is not turning stones into bread to feed the multitude, nor is he preventing an earthquake from demolishing a town. For God’s sake, Jesus is making a huge amount of wine, and he’s doing it mostly out of sight.

Forget all the pious claptrap we have all heard about this story – the Jesus of John’s Gospel is no Party Dude. He does not bless a bride and groom with an abundant gift, nor does he try to save them from the embarrassment of a catering disaster. You get the sense that Jesus would have been glad to do his job quietly and walk away. That was probably his intent – until John the Gospel Writer yells out, “Look at this! Look at this!” And unless we look, we might have missed it.

One of my friends called me up at Thanksgiving break, the first year we both went to college. He was a scientist, a bright guy. In high school, he got all the top awards for physics and math. When he went to Cornell, he got involved in a Bible study group. “They helped me figure it out,” he said. Figure what out?

“Well, there are a lot of miracles mentioned in the Bible. Jesus did a lot of them, but he doesn’t do them anymore.” I wanted to know what they were telling him at Cornell. He pulled out this big study Bible. There was almost as much printing in the margins as there was on the page. He explained that somebody had figured it out: history was divided into different eras. There was a time for miracles, when Jesus walked the earth. But after his death, after his resurrection, after he went back up into heaven, there were no more miracles.

I said, “How can you be so sure?” And with level gaze, he said, “I’ve never seen a miracle; have you?”

Seeing and believing. That’s one of the underlying concerns of this famous Bible story: Jesus does this amazing, astounding deed, and it’s just out of sight for most of the people. The servants who filled the six stone jars know a little bit. They poured in buckets of water, and drew out some wine. But they didn’t really see it change.

The very last tagline of the story declares, “His disciples believed in him.” But it never says that they actually saw the miracle, either. What they saw was Jesus. What they believed in – was Him. For them, it was perfectly conceivable that he might have done, even if they didn’t see it. Unlike my sister Debbie, the squealing assistant, they had no need to try to explain what happened. They simply stayed open to the fact that he could have made it happen. Their faith wasn’t perfect – we know that from plenty of other stories in the Gospels – but there seemed to be a basic trust that if anybody could do anything, Jesus was the One who could do it.

What does it mean to have faith? One of the working definitions that emerges from this story is a basic openness to Holy Power. It’s the awareness that God doesn’t have to stick to his own script. God can do just about anything – and does. We don’t have to ask for air; it’s simply given to us. We don’t need to request more wine or bread; there is already plenty to go around. Well, where did it come from? It must come from the same Source where all things come from.

But didn’t we make the wine ourselves, plant the vineyard, harvest the grapes, stomp out the wine, put it all in bottles? Yes, if you want to think it’s all about us – but who made that field? Where did the grapes come from? Who gave us feet to stomp? And should we burrow down to the bedrock, scrape away all human work and effort, sooner or later we discover all things come from God. When did God make it? Well, we don’t know. We weren’t paying attention.

That is the number one reason why we miss out on miracles – because we are not paying attention. We are consumed with our own business that we miss out on whatever it is that God is doing.

In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard tells about seeing a mocking bird dive from a rain gutter on a tall building. She said it was “as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.” Here’s her description:

The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bands of while, spread his elegant white banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (p. 8)

Faith means there is more going on than any one of us can take in. Each moment is pregnant with potential. There is the deep possibility in the power of Christ that something beautiful and grace-filled can happen, even if there is a cross in the picture.

The mother of Jesus knows this. She expects him to do something about the embarrassing shortage of win. He pushes back, saying the timing is all wrong, referring perhaps to his resurrection. Not only that; this is the Gospel of John, and nobody can tell Jesus what to do. Yes, he comes in grace and truth, but it is his grace and truth, and neither gift comes out of a faucet on demand. His mother is a good Jewish mother. She throws up her hands, and says, “Do whatever he tells you!” When she’s out of the picture, the miracle can begin.

The point is, Mary knows something can happen. Jesus has the power to do whatever he wishes to do. We expect that – that’s what it means to believe in him. He can do what needs to be done – in your life, in my life, in the life of this church or this village – although I believe he’s staying pretty busy in Haiti this weekend. And to trust Jesus means that we welcome him to do as he chooses. He will go where he needs to go, and do what he chooses to do.

The world would like us to believe that what we see is all we are going to get. Fear sinks in, where trust grows cold. We grow anxious and impatient as we wait for God-in-Christ to stop working the room and get around to our concerns. Sometimes all we can see are the deficits, not the resources. We prattle on about the scarcity in the world, and pay little attention to the abundance that God provides every day. So let me just say it: either God provides, and God creates, or we are totally on our own.

Or to say it in the sharpest terms, either God is alive or we are dead. I think of the entry that Dag Hammarskjold once wrote in his journal: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illuminated by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

It’s telling that Jesus goes to work at a wedding. There’s always so much going on at a wedding than ever meets the eye. There’s no question that something should be happening off stage, just out of sight. And if God is present among the people, that there is some means by which God would be revealed. Not everybody will see it, not everybody can see it in any given minute, but that is how it is in the realm of faith.

For instance, John tells us a story in chapter twelve. Jesus is praying to the Father and says, “Father, glorify your name.” Suddenly a Big Voice spoke from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” John says some people were standing there. Some said it was an angel. Others said it was thunder. John said it was God. Even when God speaks directly, not everybody can hear it. (12:28-30)

That’s the way it is. God reveals and conceals at the same time. The rabbis used to say, “If a miracle occurs, and there’s only one way to explain it, then God had nothing to do with it.” God does not usually act in obvious ways. If a heavenly voice speaks to one person, the next person will not hear it. If God does something really amazing, some may see it, others will not. What’s required is faith – faith that leans forward to listen, faith that imagines this is what God is doing, faith that discerns that this is what is in the larger purposes of what we know about God, and ultimately, faith in the strange creative power of Jesus. Anything less is less than God.

Our friend Bill Leety, the poet who visited us last fall, puts some of this in a prayer that he wrote the day before the Haitian earthquake. It’s a good poem with which to end the sermon. I’ll read it, give it a few moments to sink in, and then we will sing the hymn. Bill reflected on the last few words of the Gospel story, which say, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory…”

Jerusalem we know, Lord;
the Big Apple of that day for Jewish preachers like you.
Where’s Cana?
Whoever heard of Cana except John the gospeller?

Lord, are you telling us your glory can be found in…
Cana? In backwaters? In nations we can’t find on a map?
In towns and hamlets and crossroads—crossroads?
You play the small venues for small people like us to see your glory.

So Lord, help me resist following just spotlights
and headlines in my search for you.
Open my eyes to glories close to home
at a village wedding, a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese,
a middle school concert, or dinner at the kitchen table;
so that I, like other disciples, believe.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Through the Waters

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22(23a)
January 10, 2010
Baptism of the Lord
William G. Carter

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work . . .

This Bible scene has inspired the human imagination. Jesus goes to the river where John is preaching. He steps down into the water to be dunked by the preacher. The sky splits open, the Dove descends, and a heavenly Voice rings out. In the height of the Renaissance, it seems you couldn’t go into an Italian church without seeing that scene painted on a wall or a ceiling. It’s one those rare moments in the Gospels when heaven and earth are clearly united – and Jesus is seen for who he really is.

Luke’s account is very brief. It is told in the past tense. You get the impression that he wants to move on to tell other stories. It could be that this story is going to prompt more questions than it answers.

John has been proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” To unpack that phrase, you must turn around and come to God, turn away from all that separates you from God. Only then you are baptized, as a sign that you are forgiven.” So if this is what John is doing – a baptism of repentance – then what is Jesus doing there?

The church has pronounced Jesus sinless. By the year 80 AD, one Christian writer declared, “Jesus is like us in very way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).” He is the one perfect human being, so honored that parts of the church have surrounded him by ever-increasing circles of holiness. Some Christians later said his mother was perfectly sinless, and his mother’s mother was without sin. They say this as a way of honoring him.

Yet here he is, hip-deep in a river of washed-away sin, standing before a preacher who has been calling everybody to repentance. What are we to make of this? Luke doesn’t say. If you want an answer, you have to flip over the pages to Matthew.

Matthew is the one who says what Luke will say later on, in another way. What he says is that the baptism of Jesus is hinge for the turning of the ages. John the Baptist was doing a pre-Christian baptism. He prepared the world for the coming of the Messiah, so he called out, “Repent! Get ready!” Now, suddenly, here is Jesus. It is a new day. John’s work is finished. That’s probably why the Gospel of Luke dismisses him from the desert right in the middle of the story. We are told that John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas, and then we are shown a flashback of Jesus’ baptism, again told quite briefly.

Back in seminary, Dr. Bruce Metzger, our New Testament professor, used to tell us that the baptism of Jesus had to have happened historically. It was potentially confusing for the church, yet the church never felt that it had to scrub the story and pretend the act did not happen. Indeed, said Dr. Metzger, that’s how we know it’s a true story – because nobody could have dreamed up an event that takes so long to explain.

But perhaps the most important meaning of Luke’s story is in a detail that he does not explain. He merely shows us: “the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove.” Not merely “like a dove” – that’s Mark, that’s Matthew, that’s John. But “in bodily form.” As God’s Word took flesh in Jesus, God’s Spirit takes flesh as a dove – and falls upon Jesus.

This year, as we work through the texts of the Gospel of Luke, we are going to hear a lot about the Holy Spirit. In fact, if we were listening to the Christmas story, from the first two chapters of Luke, we have already heard a lot about the Holy Spirit.

• Zechariah was told that his son, John the Baptist, would be filled with the Holy Spirit. (1:15)
• The Holy Spirit would fill the womb of mother Mary, and cause Jesus to be born. (1:35)
• Elizabeth, Mary, and Zechariah were each filled with the Holy Spirit, and started singing Christmas carols. (1:41, 1:47, 1:67)

And that’s only in chapter one! In chapter two, the Holy Spirit rests upon a righteous old man named Simeon. We are told the Spirit revealed to him that he would see the Lord’s Messiah before he died. Then one day he was guided by the Spirit to go into the temple on the same day, the exact hour, when Joseph and Mary presented their infant boy to God. Simeon snatched him into his arms, and being full of the Spirit, he began to break into song.

After his baptism, we hear that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit (4:1). The Spirit pushed him into the wilderness to face down the devil. When he emerged victorious, again we are told Jesus was “filled with the power of the Spirit (4:14).” He began to preach, and the very first sermon text that he used the word from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . (4:18).”

Do you think Luke is trying to make a point here? I think he is. The work of the Gospel is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is stirring in the world before Jesus appears, but Jesus is the One who carries it forward. On the day he is baptized, the Spirit falls upon him “in bodily form as a dove.” And he is filled up full.

Sometimes we look at an impish kid and say, “He is full of the devil.” It’s not exactly a compliment, and we know what it means. Years ago, I vacationed with my daughters near Lake Placid, up in the Adirondacks. A friend owns a cabin up there, and we learned that my friend Tom was going to be staying nearby with his family. We met at Whiteface Mountain, drove the winding highway to the top of the hill. Then we ascended to the summit for a spectacular view – over to our left, Mount Marcy and the High Peaks, over to our right, Lake Champlain and Vermont; in front of us in a huge figure-eight was Lake Placid.

We decided to hike down the trail along the ridge. Tom’s son Nathan did not want to go. He was only four or five at the time, and prone to resistance and rebellion. He had an emotional meltdown. At one point, he bolted from his father and started running. I grabbed him just in time by the scruff of his collar. His arms and feet were pumping furiously. There was a thousand feet of empty air below him. His dad retrieved him from my frightened grip, stared him in the eye, and said, “You are full of the devil!” It was one of the most effective exorcisms that I have ever seen. Now, we know what that means.

But to be full of the Spirit? What is that?

We can understand that as the apostle Paul does, I suppose. Paul wrote to his churches and said, “There is observable evidence when the Holy Spirit fills a person.” To the Corinthians, he said, “The Spirit gifts people with abilities for the common good. Wisdom is one of those gifts, knowledge is another. Some have the ability to heal, others can work miracles, others have the ability to sort out different ideas or different speech. Some are given faith, some are given hope – and all of us should seek the gift of love. This is what the Holy Spirit gives us.” (1 Cor. 12-13). It is helpful, I think, to regard Jesus in this way – he was gifted by God with faith, hope, and love. He was full of the Spirit.

Elsewhere, to the churches in Turkey, Paul spoke about the Holy Spirit in terms of personal qualities. When the Spirit comes, it is as if we are rooted in God like fertile fruit trees. And the results of this grace are the “fruits of the Spirit. Here is his list: joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – and of course, at the top of the list is love (Gal. 5:22-23). It is also inspiring to me to think of Jesus in this way – that he was, and still is, full of joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and love. That would be sincere evidence in him, or in anybody else, that they are full of the Holy Spirit.

But our story today is from the Gospel of Luke. For Luke, as much as he can speak of the personal qualities to come to a person when they are full of the Spirit, the better phrase for him is power. The Spirit of God is the Power of God. As he quotes the ancient prophet Isaiah in his first published sermon, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to announce recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s grace (4:18-19).” These tasks take more than kindness and self-control. They are the works of ministry – God’s ministry – and it is the power of God at work in human life that makes these things possible.

Sometimes in the church, we meet people who astound us with the power of what they can do. On the face of it, they seem normal like the rest of us. They may be shy or engaging. They might have a lot of visible energy or they might be studious. They may be tall or short, female or male, right-handed or correct-handed. But what is so amazing is what they actually do – what is amazing is how God works through them, working through their abilities and in spite of their limitations, and effecting some positive difference through the work that they get done.

I remember the stories about Simon Peter. He was a coarse fisherman from the north country. Illiterate, uneducated, prone to making promises he could never keep, full of noise and bluster. He abandoned Jesus at the greatest time of need – hiding from him, lying three times about whether he knew him. But then fifty days later, he stood in a public square at nine o’clock in the morning, and he began to preach that Jesus is our Risen Lord. How did that happen? Illiterate, uneducated, frightened – now a bold, articulate witness to God’s good work. What got into him? The Holy Spirit got into him. He had the power to do God’s work.

It was just as Jesus had told him and the others: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Luke loves to tell stories about this sort of thing. When the Spirit came to ordinary people, they shared every one of their possessions, and made sure that the poor were fed (Acts 5). When a deacon named Stephen got the Spirit, he spoke the truth to the powerful and arrogant even when it cost him his life (Acts 7:55). When the fearful little church thought about staying only among people like themselves, the Spirit pushed Philip to do a Bible study with an Ethiopian (8:29), pushed Ananias to heal one of his persecutors (9:17), and pushed Simon Peter to preach to those godless Italians (10:44). The people of Christ cannot stay to themselves, for the Holy Spirit pushes them beyond their own boundaries.

There is no time limit on this sort of thing. It still happens, and not always in flashy ways. I know a lady who hates to speak in public. Put her in the pulpit as a worship leader, and she would like to evaporate and wisp away. But her ministry is in making phone calls (if she were forty years younger, she would send text messages). Nobody tells her who to call – she is too busy calling. She calls people to wish them a happy birthday, to see how they are coping with a death in their family, to inquire if they would like a pot of soup. Mostly she calls to offer a word of encouragement, a word of grace. Now, what in the world got into her? The Spirit got into her … the same Spirit that fell upon Jesus when he was baptized.

To think of all that Jesus said, to think of all that Jesus did – how could he say all of that, do all of that, endure all of that, unless he was full of a power beyond his own human ability? Baptism was the moment when he faced God’s claim upon his life to begin acting as if the Kingdom of God is right here. It was his commission to do God’s ministry. The Holy Spirit that fell upon him was the empowerment to do that ministry.

That has not changed. For anybody who is baptized in God’s triune name, they are baptized to do Christ’s work, to speak his word. The promise of God is that the same Spirit that filled Jesus Christ is the same Spirit who can fill you and me, as we use our gifts to do the work of the Gospel.

When we are baptized, God promises that there is a force at work in our lives, a power clearer than our own will and greater than our own ability. In fact, I know a lot of Christians who discover themselves in one moment after another when they can share the love of Jesus, when they have the ability to proclaim that Christ is stronger than whatever around us threatens to destroy.

The world looks at these people, scratches its head, and wonder, “Whatever got into them?”

I think we know.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Full of Grace and Truth

John 1:10-18
Christmas 2
January 3, 2010
William G. Carter

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

On the tenth day of Christmas, we take a few minutes to think about what all of it means. That is why the church assigns to us the great first chapter of the Gospel of John. The Word of God took flesh, declares John. There was a move from idea to deed. The mind of God became completely human and lived among us; or as John says it, “pitched its tent among us.” For a brief but measurable period of time, people like us saw his glory. They saw the full weight of his importance. And John invites to see it, too.

This opening chapter is like the overture of the entire work. The lights go down, the crowd hushes, and the orchestra begins to sound the themes of the story that follows it. For those with ears to hear, we learn what to listen for as the story unfolds. If we have heard the story before, the overture invites us to return and sink into the story at an even deeper level.

What is striking about this slice of the text is how it immediately reminds us that Jesus was rejected. He came into the world, and he was refused. It’s a glimpse of what will happen on Good Friday, when Jesus is put to a brutal death – but John says it has to do with more than the crucifixion. Don’t forget that John among the Gospels sees the cross as a triumph, not a tragedy, for Jesus gives himself freely for the life of the world. The Fourth Gospel says the problem begins much earlier than the cross. The Father sends the Son into the world, and the world does not want him. That’s the real problem.

We catch a glimpse of this refusal in the annual Christmas pageant. The Holy Family knocks at the door of one home after another. They are looking for a place to stay before Mary explodes in childbirth. “Go away,” is the sad reply, one home after another. An evil innkeeper twists his moustache and declares, “There is no room in the inn.” Now, historically, that didn’t happen – there is no innkeeper mentioned in the Bible. As the great-great-grandson of King David, Joseph could have recited his genealogy in the City of David, and every home in that city would have been opened to him. Especially if his wife was pregnant!

But theologically, the same message persists: Go away, Jesus! We have no room for you! We don’t want you around here. We certainly don’t want to mention your name as we exploit your name for the sake of our economy. That’s how it is in the world “out there.”

And perhaps that’s even the situation of the world “in here.” If you were here, did you see how full this sanctuary on Christmas Eve? Hundreds of people, candle wax everywhere, folding chairs set up in the aisles of the second service. Let me ask the simple question: where did everybody go?

The Gospel of John is not surprised by any of this. There is a resistance to the holy presence of the Christ. There is a refusal to follow in his way. It’s as if there is a defect in our DNA, and we have a difficulty welcoming God into our lives.

You can go into a lot of churches, and they talk about everything except God. They will sign you up for a fellowship group, invite you out to dinner, or put you on a basketball team. Out in the lobby, they might persuade you toward some generous deed, get your signature on a petition, or hand you a box of offering envelopes. All of that is fine, for what it is. But the real question is whether we are willing to create a welcome space in our souls for God. To listen for that Holy Voice. To follow those life-giving commandments. To forgive others and offer them freedom as Jesus does to us. Anybody interested in that?

John says, “The world came into being through [the Living Word of God]; yet the world did not know him.” At the heart of our lives is a hunger that we fill in any number of counterfeit ways. It is possible to be a creature, loving made in the very image of the Creator, and to have no clue about who brought you into being.

The young woman in her twenties tells about discovering she was put up for adoption as a baby. She knew nothing about the parents who gave her birth. She touched the mirror above the bathroom sink to trace the lines on their hidden faces. “I wish I knew who they were,” she says. It’s no slight on the mom and dad who took her in, raised her, loved her. What she wants to know is where she came from. That’s what all of us want to know. It is our lifelong search to know the God who made us.

And John says, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” That is not a slight against the Jews; that is an indictment of the whole human race. Certainly there were many Jews who were waiting for the Messiah at the time of Jesus’ birth, just as there are many contemporary Christians who would love to see him appear or return. The problem is that the Jesus we get is not the Messiah we want.

His first century neighbors wanted a revolutionary to drive out the Empire’s occupying army. They wanted a miracle-worker who took requests and kept them well-fed. They wanted a God they could apprehend, a Savior who made no demands on them, a Gladiator who would fight for them. They did not expect an elusive Galilean who kept slipping in and out of sight, who healed diseased people who didn’t ask to be healed, who fed them with loaves and fishes that he expected them to share.

It would be an interesting class project for all of us to figure out what kind of Jesus we would like. Chances are that the description hasn’t changed in twenty centuries. The American Savior would probably increase our investments, improve our self-images, and fill our churches. He would be a triumphant Christ who would make us strong, victorious, and arrogant. For those who consider ourselves to be “his own,” we would want him to look like us, and downplay his Jewishness. And we certainly would not want him to make any demands on us.

Well, so much for the Christ that we actually get. The prophet Isaiah was right when he expected that Jesus wouldn’t be much to look at. “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity. He was one from whom others hide their faces; he was despised, and we held him of no account (53:3).” Nevertheless, the Father sent the Son into the world . . . some still receive him, and some do not.

It is always far easier to point the finger at someone else than to explore the resistance within ourselves. Why is it so awkward for you or me to welcome Jesus into our little worlds? That is a good question to ask as we share the bread and the cup on the first Sunday of a new year. For in this sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we have his invitation to receive him again.

I would suggest today that the reason people resist Christ is the same reason some people welcome him. The reason is simply this: that he is full of grace and full of truth. We want that, and we do not want that.

He is full of grace: we resist his grace the same way we shrug off every kind of love. We are suspicious of those who claim to take us as we are. It is hard to believe that they actually love us so much. In a word of test scores, comparisons, and endless measuring sticks to prove us inferior, Jesus accepts us with grace, long before we could ever turn back toward him. He is gracious to us – and to all. Do we really want that?

And he is full of truth: we resist his truth, for he sees us clearly, specifically, with a light that casts no shadow. Left to our own devices, we might rather slip into a back pew and have no one notice the brokenness of our souls and hearts. We might prefer the anonymity, the quiet shame of staying hidden and therefore neglected. But this is how he comes – full of penetrating honesty, full of uncalculated mercy. He finds us before we can ever claim to find him. He comes with brilliant light and abundant life. Do we really want that?

That is the invitation of the Lord’s Supper, and it lies at the heart of faith. It is the fullness of life, the brightness of light. Against all our resistance to God’s generous laughter, Christ comes to us in grace and truth.

“And to all who receive him, who cast all hope on his name, he gives power to become the children of God.” That is the invitation; are you ready to send your RSVP?

(c) William G. Carter

All rights reserved. Used by permission.