Sunday, January 31, 2010

On Greatness

On Greatness

Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: January 31, 2010

I Corinthians 13:1-13

“...and the greatest of these is love.” So ends probably the most often-quoted chapter of what is arguably Paul’s most well-known letter in the New Testament. This passage – a hymn to love within the community of believers – is frequently referred to in a rather shorthand way among pastors as the “wedding passage.” I’m sometimes asked to read “that passage from Corinthians” by couples making wedding plans. Of course they are speaking of this text from I Corinthians, there are, as you know, two Corinthian letters in the New Testament.

It’s odd, in a way, that it carries that familiar association with weddings, marriage services. Though it is a perfectly great passage to read and meditate on at any time – including wedding services – and many of us have heard it read at numerous weddings, it is not addressed in any sort of primary way to marrying couples. The church, the community of believers, is the primary addressee. Paul carried a burden to teach believers to sustain the church’s call to reflect the love of Christ. It is that love which is – not to make it sound too much like a modern cliché – the greatest.

Just before declaring the supreme greatness of love, Paul wrote about three especially important words for believers: “And now faith, hope and love abide,” he said, “these three.” He said love is the greatest of the three, though no community of believers can really exist without the other two. It is a trinity of sorts: faith, hope, and love.


Think first on faith. Reinhold Niebuhr declared that in all three of these terms there is some childish quality which must be overcome or outgrown to come to maturity.[1] After all, it was Paul who brought up the subject of childishness when he compared maturity among believers to the growth of children:

When I was a child,
I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

The Bible’s view of faith is not, as the mythical Sunday school child once declared when pressed on the issue, “Believing what you know ain’t so.” It is not about the suspension of reason or a dependence on probabilities: “What are the odds that what we learn about God from the Bible is true? 20 to 1? 10 to 1? Even odds?” No, that kind of arithmetic is childish. Faith is encapsulated in the word “trust.” What are the odds that your mother will love you, that your kindness will be returned, that a good deed brings a reward? These are the sorts of questions that adults set aside because the subjects of a mother’s love, the rendering of kindness, or doing good deeds are about more than probabilities, they are about the assurance of trust. Trust stands behind all our fragmentary understandings, all our partial knowledge, even our science. The scientific method plods on in its quest for truth because of trust, trust in an orderly universe. Because the world has been known to produce consistent results in experiments in the past, scientists set about looking for trustworthy consistency in their experiments today. If someone should prove the universe totally random, inconsistent, and untrustworthy today, all scientific discovery would collapse like a house of cards into a jumble of partial, limited assertions.

Those who have deep faith know that in the midst of their trust they run into periods when the apparent meaninglessness of existence seems to be overwhelming. If we do not admit to the times when life seems void of meaning, then we turn our faith from matters of trust into blind allegiance, or we fall back to cynicism. The world in which God has involved himself was not created for our personal security, but for God’s own sometimes unfathomable purposes. The Bible declares that the ultimate purposes of God can be trusted, and provides examples such as the Exodus from Egypt, and the resurrection of Jesus to demonstrate God’s past trustworthiness. To depend on such things is the heart of faith.

Over the course of my 35 years in ministry, it has been my solemn privilege to preside at the funerals of a long list of members of the congregations I have served. I missed each of them in their usual seats in those church sanctuaries, some of which – I think they would be happy to know – came to be occupied by folks newly arrived in those congregations. For most of these saints there was no lobbying God for special favors as death neared. Several of them trudged through their last days in considerable pain, deafness, blindness, sometimes all three. A childish faith begs exceptions, wonders at the fact that they must go through what every creature must experience, and that is that life has an ending. It is part of what gives life its urgency. One dead-pan comedian said once, “I’m planning to live forever; so far so good,” but that is only funny because we all know how childish such a thought is.

Faith looks deeply into the record of God’s past dealings with humanity, and there finds reason for faith that this same God will not cease being the God who liberated slaves and raised Jesus from death.


Think next on hope. Hope emerges from faith, projecting it into the unknown future:

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face.”

The future may be unknown in its specifics, but this word from Paul speaks of hope in a way that while it may not be fully known, it may be trusted absolutely. Hope as the New Testament expresses it is not just wishful thinking, as when we may express a hope for a good grade on a test when we know we have no right to expect one, or when we say we hope Jimmy won’t come home late from his date again tonight. These are wishes, not hopes. They are immature expressions masquerading as hope. Mature hope knows fully that the future in its specifics cannot be known, not by the mortal mind. But it is also possessed of an assurance that whatever the future may be, it is encompassed somehow by God, and God’s purpose will win out.

Paul’s phrase is perhaps more familiar to those who committed scripture to memory in their youth as “now we see through a glass darkly.” Remember, Paul was not writing of a glass window pane or mirror as we know them today. Such glass was unknown in his day. His metaphor called to the minds of his first readers a polished metal mirror. Modern mirrors – especially scientific mirrors – can be expected to produce a nearly perfect image. The hand polished bronze mirrors of Paul’s day, on the other hand, were probably more often like the image distorting mirrors in the fun-house at the state fair.

The metaphor is helpful, then. We can only know anything – even our own faces – only in a vague, distorted sort of way in this life. Much less can we fully see into the future. But Paul’s assurance calls forth a mature hope which knows that while today may be partially understood and the future clouded in mystery, the day will come when we shall see “face to face,” and “will know fully,” even as we “have been fully known.”


Think last of all, on love:

Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.

Love also can be beset by immaturity. When we speak of love, maturity becomes even more important or else we fall into sentimentality passing itself off as love. There are three New Testament words for love:
  • eros, which refers to physical, erotic love, a love that sets our hearts beating faster;
  • phileo, which refers to the kind of love which finds expression in families, as in love of one brother or sister for another. “Philadelphia” uses this Greek word in its name and so, not coincidentally, its motto is the “city of brotherly love”;
  • agape, which refers to the kind of hard-headed love about which Jesus taught, a love that insistently wills and works for the good of another, even if that other is an enemy. It is the love that singer Amy Grant once called “Love of Another Kind.”
Only a person of mature faith can fully turn in life toward agape. Agape love means that life has no meaning except in terms of responsibility: toward family, toward city, state, and nation, toward the world – a big place which, of course, will include our enemies.[2] It means people who have no children at home – or never did – will love others’ children who are not their own, love them enough to pay taxes to see to it that there are schools for them; it means working to assure adequate health care for all, of which we may never need to take advantage. It means all those now-unpopular elements of the old “social gospel” which called for agape-love for others regardless whether it is convenient, expedient, or useful. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is the summary statement of the ethic of the New Testament.

Our lives as believers are made up of this threefold reality: faith, hope, and love. It is a matter of finding them in their proper relationship to each other. Love is the superior mark of the believer, because without the present reality of love, all the historical faith in God’s gracious acts in the past, all the future hopes for God’s powerful acts in the future, will mean nothing. This is because none will receive a present-day manifestation without the greatest, without love for one another. Paul wants us to remember the priority. The greatest of these is love. Without love, all our faithfulness becomes humorless, all our hope turns inward. Without love, we are like noisy trash can lids slammed on pavement. But with love, ah with it... well, that is the greatest life there is to live.

[1] “We See Through a Glass Darkly,” Justice and Mercy: Reinhold Neibuhr, Ursula Niebuhr ed, Harper & Row, 1974, p. 29 ff.
[2] Ibid., p. 35.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Opening the Book

Opening the Book

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: January 24, 2010
copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Luke 4:14-21

It’s not every Sunday that you get to hear a sermon including a reading from Nehemiah, so you may want to take advantage of this rare opportunity and pay special attention! Today we have the stories of two proclamations, one in the Old Testament, the other in the New. In one, the people wept as they heard the Word read and interpreted, in the other, the people would soon become enraged enough to want to throw the preacher – who was Jesus – off the cliff. No safe task, this preaching business. And each time, every time, from those times to this, it all starts with the book, with the Bible.

Now, if we are like most people, our recollection of the history of Israel around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah – as well as the content of their writings – may be just a little hazy. Actually, it may be more than hazy. It may be a blank slate!

So here is a brief rundown of the setting of the Nehemiah reading: Ezra and Nehemiah were two of the leaders of the people of Judah who helped the Israelites returning from their years of exile in Babylon to reclaim not only their land, but their religious observances as well. In 581 B.C., the Babylonian armies had destroyed Jerusalem and carried anybody who was anybody off into exile way down in Babylon, modern Iraq. During their years there, many fell away from the faith, but there were many who remained faithful in their worship of God, even though they could no longer worship in their Temple. So they began to worship in a new way. It was during that time that what we now know as synagogue worship first began to take shape, a sort of portable worship of God which used to take place only in a fixed Temple. And it is from synagogue worship that Christian worship later developed following the resurrection of Jesus and the evangelism of the apostles.

In Nehemiah it says that the book “was read clearly.” Then it says that the Levites – they were the priests who just lately had regained a Temple to be priests in – the Levites “gave the sense” of what was read, “so that the people understood the reading.” They gave the sense of it.

As long ago as 400 years before Christ, probably longer, people were aware that writings they revered did not assist them much in faith unless they were read aloud for all to hear, especially since most people could not read for themselves, and had no access to books anyway. And even then, these writings were not just to be read, but interpreted, taught, as a means to fuller understanding of their faith.

Why must scripture be interpreted? The question isn’t frivolous. I have to admit I ask it under my breath sometimes as I prepare sermons. One obvious reason is that we don’t live in the times in which the scriptures were written. Probably the majority of our problems in understanding scripture stem from our ignorance of the time and people for whom scripture was first written and read.

This problem is not unique to us, it was faced 25 centuries ago by the early returnees from captivity in Babylon. The scriptures were written in Hebrew. The language in Babylon was Aramaic, a language similar to Hebrew, only in the way that, say, modern Spanish or Italian is similar to Latin. The language may be similar, but Spaniards don’t speak Latin, and neither did the returning Jews speak Hebrew. Two generations of captivity caused the language of the Babylonians to replace Hebrew as their everyday speech. This was as true of the two generations that had lived in Babylon as it would be of any immigrant group that has come to America. Second or third generation children may return to their parents’ or grandparents’ homeland, may even speak a little of the language, but there is a very good chance they will need a lot of interpretive help when they get there.

We are in a similar situation when it comes to our Bible. Since I suspect that none of us fluently speak the Bible’s original languages of Old Testament Hebrew or New Testament Greek, it is necessary that someone translate for us – which in itself requires a good deal of interpretation – and that someone read to us, and someone interpret what has been read. It is not enough to have the book, it must be read. It is not enough to read the book, it must be understood. And even understanding is not enough, for in every generation, the words of the Bible must be made plain for a new time, so it must be interpreted. Yet beyond the reading and speaking and interpretation, there must be something more. Action must follow words. Ezra’s reading and the interpretation of the words were followed directly by action: The people were to go, eat, share what they had with those who had nothing, and find that the joy of the Lord was in their strength, a strength expressed in the very act of compassion when one shared with another.

Understanding what it meant to have the word read, understood, interpreted, and acted upon, we can gain a better perspective on the situation in which Luke reported that Jesus spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth.

A few years ago when I was serving as pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Salem, across the street from the capitol, on the first day of a new legislative session, I was asked to give the opening prayer for the state Senate. Afterward, I slipped over to the House side to hear the opening inspirational moment there. This very passage was read from the New Testament. Release for the captives and liberty for the oppressed didn’t have much of a chance during that legislative session, which focused a tremendous amount of time on toughening up sentencing laws. Even so, these words are an important foundation upon which a commitment to justice must stand.

We are all justifiably proud that most of the world identifies America as a land of freedom. Yet freedom and justice, together, form twin columns that support our form of government and all institutions we hold dear. Freedom is something we talk about. It is an issue that is writ large in the words of Isaiah, which Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue that day. But as Nehemiah’s book recorded, truth spoken must be given legs to become truth enacted. Freedom may be spoken, but it requires a commitment to justice bring it to pass.

I once read about a curious baptismal font in the chapel of Belmont Abbey College, a Roman Catholic school in Charlotte, North Carolina. The font is hollowed out of a huge piece of granite. Mounted on the rock is a sign that reads, “On this rock, slaves were once traded. From this rock, people are now baptized and set free in Christ.”[1]

I have spent almost my entire adult life responding to the call to proclaim the good news of freedom in Christ to a world that is in desperate need of hearing it. But the word has to be more than proclaimed. It has to be lived. I think that is why Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Because of Jesus, Freedom – and its necessary twin, Justice – are possible. Where the word of Jesus is proclaimed, the people are somehow empowered to set aside self in a commitment to lives lived for others. In ancient times, Aristides described the early Christians for the Emperor Hadrian this way:

They love one another. They never fail to help widows: they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something they give freely to the one who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.[2]

Most of us are inclined to see the scene of that famous sermon in Nazareth from Jesus’ perspective as he stands before the congregation, reading the lesson from Isaiah. I know I do that. But we have to remember we are not Jesus. “I am not standing with him in the pulpit, but am sitting with you in the congregation ... Jesus say[s] that God loves even outsiders, foreigners, non believers ... As a pastor, I spend my day ministering to my own flock. You are the people who called me to be your pastor, the people to whom I am accountable. More than that, I ... want to please you and serve you. But here is Jesus reminding me that, while I may be content to serve you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, God’s love is even more inclusive.”[3]

Our congregation, like any congregation, finds itself in a city where the majority of people certainly aren’t Presbyterians, the majority do not claim a church affiliation, thousands do not even share our language. We know we are called to speak the good news to all who would listen, and to speak it – as those Levites did long ago – so that others will understand the words as well as hear them.

As a pastor, I’m supposed to try to make the ministry of this church available to all who would come. But I realize that I am not alone in my calling to this vital task. I realize that I am not the only one meeting up with those unknown people out there. The ministry of Christ needs your help to speak to the good news that God’s love is inclusive, open beyond these walls. I believe that as we commit ourselves to each other to announce the acceptable year of the Lord in Vancouver, that we will reach others.

Please commit yourselves today to pursue the vision of a church that extends itself to others. And pray with me that we may receive the strength we need as a church of Christ to reach people with the word of Good News which awaits them in the One whose presence opens to us the saving Word of our faith, whose presence among us fulfills the very words of the prophets.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 [NRSV] —

1...all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 9And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Luke 4:14-21 4:14 [NRSV] —

14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When 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, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And 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. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

[1] Pulpit Resource, Jul/Aug/Sept 1994, p. 22.
[2] “Recovering the Evangel”, by Jim Wallis, in Theology Today, 7/81, V. 38 No. 2, p. 219.
[3] Preaching About Conflict in the Local Church, by William Willimon, Westminster Press 1987, p.82

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Winemaker

The Winemaker

Isaiah 62:2-5 Copyright © 2010, Robert J. Elder
John 2:1-12 January 17, 2010

We share two scripture lessons this morning, and, though I intended to speak mostly on the reading from John’s gospel, the events of the past week with the devastating earthquake in Haiti move me in the direction of the words from Isaiah as well.

Philip Wogaman is a professor of ethics and the former dean of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. I read least week that, following the earthquake, he began class with this question: 'What is the central theme of the Bible?'[1] The students responded the ways most of us would, I think: love, forgiveness, salvation. We could think of more along this line. The one answer he did not receive was the word hope. So he lectured on hope as the message of the resurrection. It is the biblical message declaring there is always a new day on its way. It is the message that no matter how tragic life may be, the possibilities for new beginnings are woven into the darkest of times; which does not discount the severity of Haiti’s present agony. What it does mean is that in the midst of even horrible circumstances there still exists the possibility for new beginning.

A death toll that, by some forecasts, ultimately could be as high as 500,000 people may be too much for us to comprehend usefully. But factor each death down to one individual, each becomes a unique person who no longer lives among us. It is one person who will never enjoy living into his or her twilight years or have children or dream dreams of achievement. And in all this there will always be the question:

“Why did God allow this to happen?”

Chapters 40 through 66 of Isaiah have come to be called “The Book of Comfort.” Isaiah declares to his people in exile that their land will be restored after its devastation and their exile from their homes. Isaiah declares: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall your land any more be termed Desolate: … for the Lord delights in you…” This is a message of hope.

Though the sorrow will remain in Haiti for generations, we have confidence in the words of Isaiah as well as dozens of assurances that I have received through e-mail this weekend, that the communities will rebuild and missionaries and funds, and health workers are already en route. Perhaps Haiti, too, will have a new name. The message of hope is embedded in the Resurrection. Now God’s people are asked to respond to the summons of Isaiah.

Now, to the story of Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana. It is a very famous one. And rightfully so. Here we have the leader of a movement that has at times been followed in long-faced, dour fashion — this one to whom some respond sadly, almost mournfully – saving a wedding party just in the nick of time, bringing hope out of hopelessness even in this social circumstance, by helping out with the refreshments. It could possibly serve as a parable – for anyone who has felt afflicted upon finding themselves placed on the punch and cookie committee – that Jesus knows even in this way what it is to be human.

Acres of trees have given their lives for paper on which debates have raged over whether Jesus actually made fermented wine or unfermented grape juice; oceans of ink have been spilled on those forgotten forests to argue the pros and cons of wine making and drinking and other issues seemingly raised in this passage.

In fact, this passage has been so much discussed and so often misunderstood, it is probably just as important to say what it is not as to say what it is . The list of subjects not really touched upon by this passage include the following:

  1. It is not a lesson in how not to treat your parents nor a story of how a Jewish boy mistreated his mother. When she told Jesus that they were out of wine, he lamented to his mother that his time had not come. He said, “O woman, what have you to do with me?” Actually, the Greek could have been translated to say, “Pardon me, Ma’am, but what has this to do with either of us? Is this my problem?”
  2. This passage is not a demonstration of the fact that Jesus was particularly fond of married people, or that he supported the institution of marriage. This is not to say that he didn’t love married people or think that marriage was important, but you can’t prove these things from this text. It has occasionally been interpreted that way, but that is stretching things pretty far. This is not a story about marriage or weddings. Who ever heard a story about a wedding that not only fails to name the couple, but fails ever to mention any of the members of the participating families at all?
  3. This story is not a primer on the way Jesus acted at parties. Some have developed this conjecture to an extent that suggests the reason the wine ran out before the party was over was that Jesus and his disciples – invited at the last minute – came and drank up the supplies! Not likely.
  4. This is not even a public miracle story, in the way of other miracles or magic. That is to say, this was not a miracle performed in public to impress bystanders. No one even knew of the miracle except the servants, and there is no record that they said anything to anyone. Even if they had, who is likely to believe the word of slaves? And what would magic prove? The purpose of good magic is to hide the deceit of the magician, making things appear to be what they are not. While magic conceals the truth and promotes a fiction, the purpose of miracles is to reveal the truth and promote disclosure. True miracles of Jesus are meant to reveal who Jesus is to those in a position to see his ministry. But no one saw this, at least not publicly. It is not a public miracle story.
  5. One final thing that this story is not, and this may be the most misunderstood aspect of all. This is not a lesson on the Biblical standard concerning the use of fermented or unfermented wine. For decades the argument has gone on. Those who say that taking a drink is perfectly alright have pointed to this passage and said that it proves unquestionably that Jesus approved of the use of spirits. Just as adamantly, those who oppose the use of alcoholic beverages say that no grape was ever made that could ferment in the time it takes to fill some barrels with water and then dip some out, proving that Jesus used unfermented wine. This amounts to making the Bible give answers to questions that it is not even asking.
None of these truly represents John’s purpose in sharing this gospel story with us. In following all these false leads, wouldn’t it reveal us to be more interested in the wine than the winemaker? The point of this story lies somewhere in the miracle, unquestionably. But probably not as we may have been trying to view it. As one scholar said, “God has more in mind for us than the alleviation of household shortages.” Our view may have been too small. We need to read stories like this, keeping in mind all the while the whole purpose that John maintained in writing his gospel was that the person of Jesus might be better understood; that those who came after might have the opportunity to believe in him.

Had it been one of us performing this transformation of water into wine, it is not likely that we would have done it in the pantry; we would have walked to the middle of the ballroom, waited until the room grew quiet, perhaps asked for a spotlight and a drum roll. Then we would have brought it off while all eyes were upon us so that people might be convinced about our power and spread the word. Here, on the contrary, Jesus did his work in private, and only the serving people knew. We would likely have wanted to build up a following so that – because of our popular support – a crucifixion could have been prevented. Jesus seems unconcerned about popular support, and, ultimately, just as disinclined to take steps to prevent his own execution.

Clearing away the incidentals, we begin to see more foundational themes in this passage: that the best can come at the last; that even when disaster looms, over a wedding party, or over a cross, God wills that good should happen in the midst of it.

Isaiah’s words are also associated with wedding imagery. This time it was the metaphorical wedding between Israel and her Lord after the exile. And what we learn is that a major change of status such as that which takes place at a wedding, requires a change of name. When God reclaimed Israel after the exile, things became different. No longer was their nickname, “The Nation That God Forgot,” or “How Jacob’s Family Lost the Farm.” Now other nations would look to Israel and call her “God’s Beloved.” Would that such a transforming re-naming could happen for the people of Haiti in the coming months and years of rebuilding. Only women in our culture who choose to do so can fully understand the deep significance of changing one’s name on the wedding day, and even that simple act, once taken for granted, has undergone change in our culture. But there are cultures in which both men and women take on new names upon the occasion of their wedding, to match the new status that marriage necessarily involves for both parties.

That was the case with the disciples at this marriage in Cana. They began to see Jesus with new eyes. Have you ever had the experience of looking at someone that you have known well for a good number of years, and suddenly being struck by a feeling of separateness from them, the notion that you really don’t know them at all? This is most striking when it occurs to us as we sit with a parent or spouse, or very close friend or relative. And it usually happens when they haven’t the slightest idea what is going through our minds. We glance at them and are suddenly impressed by their distinction from us, and we see them, even momentarily, in a whole new way. Generally these feelings pass as swiftly as they come, and we don’t give them another thought.

I think that may be the way the disciples looked at Jesus that day, when they must have heard, after the fact, what he had done. It was the first miracle John recorded. Jesus didn’t even perform it for their benefit. But when they heard, they knew that they hadn’t even begun to understand who this man was, that somehow he was more than they had ever anticipated.

We have said many of the things that this passage is not. We must not fail to work at an understanding of what it is. Everything in the passage points to verse 11: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” Faith was busily being born in the disciples in the most ordinary and unexpected of circumstances.

Think of it: when can you recall faith being born for you? Probably it has been on more than one occasion when you can recall that something special has gone on between you and the Lord. Still, chances are it was in an unpredictable circumstance. Was it at a large evangelistic rally? Was it during a reading of devotional literature that you suddenly came to the conclusion that faith was emerging in your heart? Possibly, at least at some point in your life, a rebirth of faith has occurred at an unlikely time, a time largely uninvited, unsolicited, and beyond easy explanation; in the kitchen or on a trip, or during a conversation. It may have surprised you.

Perhaps it was at the funeral of a loved one, a time when many people take a fresh look at what is important in their lives and discover the gentle tug of the gospel. Maybe it was at a wedding, as it was in Cana, when our thoughts are more likely to run along the mundane track of evaluating dresses, flowers, and aisle runners. Perhaps at that time, especially if the wedding involved someone very close to you, you found yourself experiencing an unsolicited birth of new faith.

It could have been under any of a hundred other everyday circumstances, when discovering a new relationship with Jesus was the last thing on your mind. Faith is not necessarily meant to be born at a wedding, but it can be born even there. That is what happened one day in Cana.

The focus of the story is not on the couple, the wine, the wedding, or even on Jesus’ mother. The focus is on Jesus, who was then seen by his followers as if for the first time: A revelation of who he was, beginning to dawn upon them. The focus of the story is not the wine, but the winemaker, the one who can make all things new: even a shabby little marital affair in a backwater district of Galilee. And once we have seen the meaning of the miracle, the disciples who hear the story and believe are us; for we realize we can be changed as fully by Christ as the water that became wine.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Thanks to “Hope for a New Beginning,” by Ronald J. Love, for helpful words last week on Isaiah’s word to us.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Divine Vocalise

Divine Vocalise
Baptism of the Lord, January 10, 2010
© 2010 copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Psalm 29
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The voice of the Lord is powerful;
The voice of the Lord is full of majesty. NRSV

This psalm is about divine speech, the vocalizations of God. Oh, it may be about a lot of other things, but we won’t be too far off if we claim to know at least that it is about God speaking, since no less than seven of the eleven verses in this psalm begin with the phrase, “The voice of the Lord is...” And when we begin to consider all the things the psalm claims the voice of the Lord accomplishes, it is pretty astonishing. Yet after all the images of power through the voice — which breaks the cedars, and flashes out of thunderstorms like tongues of fire, rattles all the windows like the winds of the most recent windstorm we can recall, and rips oak trees into shreds — after all this, the psalm ends with a prayer that, in the mind of the psalmist anyway, seemed to be an appropriately related thought. Following images of violence and power, the psalm utters a brief prayer which says, “May the Lord bless his people with peace.”

They are amazing to me, these two things together: the God of thunder and lightning who resembles some Teutonic “Thor,” being petitioned for shalom, for peace. This psalm is in some ways a prayer of confession, that a God who is Lord over any chaos surely has the power to bless the people with peace.

The voice of the Lord is this, the voice of the Lord does that... When is the last time you heard the voice of God? Have you ever heard it? How did it sound? Did it come to you as it does in this psalm with splintering trees and raging thunder? Or was your experience more like the still small voice Elijah heard during his pilgrimage? We have hospitals for people who claim to hear the voice of God, and yet the Bible — the Old Testament particularly — is filled with references to this voice, especially when the people fail to heed it. In the Old Testament alone, there are over 200 verses containing the word “voice,” a great number referring to the voice of God, the voice of the Lord, and all the things that voice accomplishes. There are 100 New Testament verses with the word “voice,” many referring to the voice of God as another way of speaking of the Word of God.

I recently read a story about a medical doctor who had long battled against the idea that there is a personal God who intervenes in human life. He sought his own spiritual refuge instead in music; the music of Bach particularly appealed to him because of the mathematical precision of Bach’s fugues. Meanwhile, though professionally successful, his personal life was falling apart. His first wife left him; he started drinking too much. One day as he was driving, he pounded the steering wheel with his open palms and cried out, “God, if you’re really there, you’re going to have to say something! And you know what kind of man I am! No screwing around, now-no (blasted) ‘signs.’ You’re going to have to talk my language!” Just then on the radio came Bach’s classic “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” The man sobbed, and laughed at what an idiotic but wonderfully appropriate word this was to him. And just as his mind began to try to explain away the moment, with a thought that Bach was often played on that radio station (which was actually not a classical music station), the next song to come on was “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Whatever it is that is — or is not — happening today, whatever we may or may not be hearing, clearly there have been those who were convinced that God has something to say to us that we would do well to hear. Maybe one of the reasons our world is often in such sorry shape is that we have ceased to listen for the voice of God, ceased to believe that God has anything worthwhile to add to the conversation. We have weather satellites that circle the globe and have learned that heat in one area of the world can contribute to high winds in another, that high barometric pressure tends to move out large air masses of low pressure, and the process creates storms. No matter what the Farmers’ Almanac tells us, no one can accurately predict the weather beyond about four or five days, and real accuracy comes only one or two days ahead, if then. Still, very few weather forecasters on the 11:00 o’clock news will stand before their audiences and declare, with the psalmist, that our weather is attributable to the voice of God, even if they believe it, which some probably do.

The commentaries on this thunderstorm psalm use phrases like “the overwhelming majesty of God” to describe the feelings it is meant to elicit from its hearers. It sounds like something that should be mentioned in the temple in Jerusalem as well as from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church, but when was the last time you honestly felt overwhelmed by the majesty of God? “Now let’s see, was it last Tuesday or the day before...?” Honestly, now, on the subject of God as author of storms and wind, haven’t most of us become practicing weather agnostics most of the time, depending on our weather prognosticators to deal with causes and effects of weather? Haven’t we come to seek a God who will be our friend to the extent that fearful experiences of the majesty of God have pretty much departed from our religious vocabulary?

When God’s people were in exile in Babylon in the sixth century before Christ, they ran into a poem very much like this psalm, praising a god named Ba’al-Hadad, which one commentary called the local “weather god.”
2 But in a style typical of Hebrew poetry, in the face of claims made by other local folks for their neighborhood deities like this weather god, the poet claims over and over again that the real author of creation, and the One who continues to oversee operations, is not some little regional sub-god, but the Lord God of Israel. Over and over again through the imagery of the thunderstorm the claim is made for the God of Israel rather than some half-pint god:
  • The voice of the Lord is over the waters, and not just rain waters, but also the chaotic waters into which the Creator stepped on that first day of creation;
  • Only the voice of the Lord is powerful enough to have made a world in which thunder sometimes crashes, rainstorms sometimes heave water onto the earth;
  • The voice of the Lord not only can break oaks and Lebanon cedars like toothpicks, but the voice from this One could hurl Lebanon itself across the Mediterranean like a skipping stone on a lake.
I recall after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast back in 2005, folks in the media often invoked the term biblical to describe the vast destruction brought on by Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge, which had apparently gone beyond our imagination and our normal categories of explanation for such disasters.3 The term wasn’t used to describe the storm with any precision—it seems to mean to most of us that this storm was simply vast or awe-inspiring. The Bible, and Psalm 29 in particular, is not satisfied with any explanations that suggest God is not in control of natural events in the world, rather the Bible is more inclined to claim that God’s power is beyond our normal calculus, so explanation is a futile enterprise.

This is more than a poem about a God who is in charge of weather, this is about a God who is in charge of everything, and so the competition for our attention and devotion is shown to be no competition at all! The psalmist says, “Don’t be fooled: the weather forecasters, the orbiting satellites may well describe what is going on, but only the Lord creates.”

So, if the God we worship is the author of all this, what is an appropriate prayer, what shall we ask of God? For the psalmist, it boils down to a simple prayer, really: “May the Lord give strength to God’s people! May the Lord bless God’s people with peace!”

A psalm that began with declarations of glory ends with a prayer for peace. It’s not unlike another message from the heavenly council that came to shepherds on a hillside one winter. Their message began in glory and ended in an answer to humanity’s endless prayer for peace with the gift of the child, the Prince of Peace. That the author of raging thunderstorms could also be the author of the babe of Bethlehem somehow makes a wonderful sort of sense to me.

Today on the liturgical calendar calls for remembrance of Jesus’ baptism. I have heard that consideration of the waters of baptism have been an important subject in the worship life of this congregation, and while I have never been what we might call “highly liturgical” in the orientation of my ministry, I do believe that the entire meaning of baptism to each of us probably takes a lifetime to comprehend. Thinking on the psalm and gospel read today, and thinking on the long path of faith which takes a lifetime to finish, I think it is helpful to return to thoughts of baptism, even to come and touch the baptismal waters here in the font, to remember the voice of the Lord which is over the waters and especially the stormy waters of our lives, to remember, and be glad.

This is the God who can answer your prayer for the strength you need, for the peace you seek in your own life. He has answered it already. The answer has a name. It is Jesus.


1 “Signs and Sounds,” by Lawrence Wood, Christian Century, December 26, 2006, p. 19.
2 The Psalms, by Artur Weiser, 1962: Westminster Press, p. 261.
3 I am grateful for “A Disaster of ‘Biblical’ Proportions,” by Walter Brueggemann, Christian Century, October 4, 2005, p, 23 for ideas in this paragraph.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Pulling It All Together

Pulling It All Together

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Second Sunday of Christmas: January 3, 2010

Ephesians 1:3-14

It was on the day before Christmas day this year that I first spotted an announcement in the newspaper about places to deposit those freshly undesirable Christmas trees, trees which almost everyone felt an absolute necessity to acquire just three weeks before. On December 26th. That holiday toward which we look from the end of October through December 24th seems to evaporate almost in an instant from our cultural radar. A year or so ago between Christmas and New Years, I recall seeing Valentines displays going up in one store where all the Christmas merchandise had been only hours before. It is a source of continuing amazement to me that we can treat the symbols of such a special day almost with revulsion the day after. We may take up the same haste in breaking off the Christmas moment and message from the rest of the course of our lives as we did to prepare for it.

Yet while the rest of world already may have put away the ornaments and the Christmas music, the church continues its celebration of Christmas until January 6, Epiphany. That day is, in effect, a final acknowledgment of Christmas. If you like the song and are keeping track, today, January 3rd, is the tenth day of Christmas; true loves should be giving or receiving the requisite ten lords a-leaping today.

I think that funny old song – and the centuries-long Christmas traditions of the church – recognize that the human heart needs more than a single brief day of exhausted observance to begin to comprehend the miracle of the incarnation, the birth of God’s Messiah among us in human flesh. Our scripture passage for this, the Second Sunday after Christmas, overflows with praise as we begin to recognize the place of the incarnation in the sweep of salvation history. Ephesians gives us a glimpse of our own place in God’s plan of salvation. From the time Israel was freed from its slavery in Egypt, to the return of the exiles from Babylon, to the faith of the believers in Ephesus, clear up to our day, Ephesians declares broadly and clearly that

“With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (vss. 8-10)

The baby born in Bethlehem, it turns out, is the one in whom the whole world will hold together. The mystery is God’s plan “to gather up all things” in Christ. The Greek word that Paul used for “gather up” means to “sum up,” and is used for adding a column of figures. In the ancient world, the sum was written at the top of the column rather than at the bottom; the term usually means literally to “bring to a head.” Buried in this very long verb (νακεφαλαιώσασθαι) is the Greek word head, which in Ephesians is applied to Christ. He is “the head” in whom all things are “brought to a head.” And that unity is cosmic, including “things in heaven and things on earth.”

Our common experience presents a different picture, of a fractured world, a world in which all loose ends seldom seem to get tied together in any meaningful way. And when we do get a few loose ends connected, they can unravel again in no time. What does violence in far away lands mean to us? Hundreds are blown to pieces by random suicide bombers in far-off lands, and for what? How about violence a bit nearer to home? A few years ago some boys beat a man nearly to death on his own Christmas tree lot before Christmas because he had scolded them the day before. And it isn’t only violence that unravels our world. Promises easily made are all too easily broken by employers, merchants, and in relationships. Churches of all denominations have seemingly endless discussions over who may and who may not be ordained to church offices, focusing arguments especially on sexual behavior, and it seems we will never come to an agreement that is satisfactory to all. Words leading toward splitting up denominations are sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted around. Splitting up, fracturing apart, estrangement from each other even in our churches – the body of Christ, if this is not a world in need of a savior “to gather up all things in him,” then I don’t know what more it would take. Nothing seems to want to hold together. And yet, we have this promise from Ephesians, God has a plan, his plan may still be a mystery to us, but that God had a plan is not in doubt as far as Paul is concerned.

“[God] has made known to us the mystery of his will...that he set forth in Christ...a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him...” Paul goes on, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.”

These verses run counter to at least two common and strongly held values in our culture:[1]

[1] They insist over and over that humanity is utterly dependent on God. God creates, God destines, God wills, God reveals, God accomplishes – all taken together means that humanity, on our own, accomplishes nothing of any real or lasting significance. This assault on our cherished ideals of effectiveness, independence and autonomy poses a challenge to the way we are accustomed to viewing ourselves and our place in the world. But it means that our sinful fracturing, splintering, and separating also will ultimately lead to naught. There is a backward sort of good news in that.

[2] There is also an insistence on the obligation to praise God. If God has done all this for us, our pragmatic nature responds, “What are we to do?” Standing in God’s debt, we feel obliged to do something to pay back. But our passage stipulates no repayment, the debt can never be repaid. Instead, we are encouraged only to give God thanks and praise. The words of the passage should move us to recall the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, that the chief end of human life is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

When the world seems to be on the verge of splitting apart, what better response to the unifying, “gathering up” work of Christ than unbridled praise? When we read the first words from our passage in Ephesians, we can almost hear the words of the doxology to the tune of the “Old Hundredth” ringing in our ears:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow

Praise him all creatures here below

Praise him above, ye heavenly host

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Each line, line after line, rings with praise. We all thrive on praise. When we want to encourage someone, what is the best method? Praise! “You are doing so well! Keep up the good work! Thank you for all you do for us!” You know the kind of thing. Why, then, would it be difficult to imagine the appropriateness of such words for God? Why praise God?

In an old story, a young student once asked an aging pastor for advice on how to live a pure and holy life. The pastor told him that each day he must ride his bicycle 25 miles, fast every Saturday, abstain from any enjoyments every Sunday, bathe himself entirely in olive oil once each month, and read the Bible through at least once each year.

After following this routine for two years, the student happened to meet the pastor again. Perturbed, he began to accuse the pastor of having misled him. “I have a bone to pick with you. I have done what you said: ridden my bike, fasted, abstained from enjoyments, bathed, and read the Bible through twice. In reading the Bible, however, I discovered all the other stuff wasn’t necessary. It is God’s grace that makes me holy, not all my efforts to lead a pure life.”

“I know,” said the pastor, “but if I had told you it was that easy, would you have believed me?”

The same may be true for us. We know our world is broken, splintered, and we ask the same questions generation after generation. How can our world survive? What will become of us? Yet the answers to our dilemma are disarmingly simple. They are part of God’s plan and purpose which, while it may remain something of a mystery to us, is wrapped up in the word made flesh, in the Christ who comes to us to pull it all together. While we turn away from our faith, the answers to our difficulties elude us. But Ephesians recognizes that in turning to Christ, we turn to the One in whom all things hold together.

No wonder Paul can barely contain his urge to break forth into praise for the love of God who so cares for creation and his beloved people.

Think through the words of the Old Hundredth again.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow: If it is a blessing, it has its source in God, the one from whom all blessings flow, including the blessing of a Savior.

Praise him all creatures here below: Everyone. Every created thing is called upon to render praise to the one who gather up all things in heaven and on earth.

Praise him above, ye heavenly host: As I said, in heaven and earth. The compulsion to praise is not limited to the creation, but extends to the entire universe. There is no Hubble telescope, no Lunar lander, no Mars mission that will discover a realm beyond the cosmos that bursts forth in praise to the God who holds things together.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: The very unity of the Trinity serves as the model for the gathering together work of God in Christ. Unity is the way we come to know him.

There are worse things to remember as the essence of Christmas than that it was the time when God made known his plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ.

[1] Thanks for this insight to Texts for Preaching: Year C, Walter Brueggemann et. al., Westminster Press, pp. 80-81.