Sunday, March 25, 2012

Seeing Jesus

Seeing Jesus

John 12:20-36 copyright, © 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

March 25, 2012 First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington

“Up me, Daddy, up me!” That was one of my favorite sentences ever to come from the mouth of one of my daughters. It meant she wanted to be picked up, of course. She was about 3, as I recall. Grown-ups seem to have all the height advantages, it is one of the reasons our children look up to us, at least initially. They have to. We’re taller. At first anyway. And early on, they recognize the advantage of height, especially in crowds or at a parade or any other spectacle. So my girls each had their share of time in their childhood, perched on top of my shoulders, gazing at the world around them at a height of over 6 feet instead of 2 or 3.

We all know the benefits of altitude. The mountain vista is so much more spectacular from a height than from the valley floor. A meandering stream’s course is so much easier to identify from 10,000 feet than from the river bank. People have always sought out elevation, because from an elevated perspective we can see so much better the entire context of our surroundings.

The Greeks in John’s lesson wanted to see Jesus. That’s what they requested anyway, though I’ll be darned if I can find anywhere in the passage where they actually got to see him. If you are like I am, you might first read their appeal, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” as a request to sit down and have a chat. An audience.

But maybe that’s not at all what John meant when he used the word “see,” just the way it’s not always what we mean when we say it. TV shows and movies are filled with an expressions like, “See what I’m saying?” Of course, it doesn’t mean do we actually see the words that a person is saying as they march out into the air, it means do we understand what is being said, are we connected to its context, its significance?

Later on in the passage Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Elevated, we will see him, and understand better too. In the first letter of John comes this same sense that it was events, and not a particular audience, that provided the response to the Greeks’ petition to see Jesus. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”[1]

How to elevate the cross of Jesus so all can see ... how do we do it? Well, for one thing we have to notice it. In a lot of churches, the cross around which people gather is entirely too civilized. It disappears into the background, an unwelcome reminder of the cost of the faith so many of us now take almost entirely for granted. I am so happy that the cross here in our sanctuary is, shall we say, hard to miss! And on Good Friday we will gather at the end of the service underneath this cross, this representation not only of the means of Jesus’ death, but the binding nature of our fellowship in his name, represented by the circle imposed on our Celtic cross, the very fruit of the seed sown in his death, born in our own fellowship. It makes me awestruck just to think about the staggering significance of it.

I have a friend in ministry who told me of a church that put up three crosses draped in black on the front lawn in recognition of Holy Week one year. They received a dozen calls complaining that the crosses made the neighborhood look bad. Well, yes, that’s the point of the cross, isn’t it, to reveal the badness in the world, and the way in which God went about addressing it?

Of course the cross is more than a furnishing or a decoration at the front of sanctuaries. We can see the work of the cross at work in our own lives if we train ourselves to look.

The saving power of Jesus’ death on the cross resides in its function as a seed, and that seed is meant to bear fruit in us. In us. The power of his death resides in the community that gathers as a result of it.[2] In our gathering together here, and our going out, week by week, the seed of Jesus’ death bears fruit.

How can we understand this? We want to come up with theories, justifications for Jesus’ death. These often come in the form of statements that theologians call theories of the atonement. It sounds fancy, but the word atone just runs two easily-understood words together: at + one. Theologians contemplating the atonement ask, how can we, who are separated from the holiness of God, become at one with God again? So theories of the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice emerge: substitutionary atonement is probably the hands-down favorite: that Jesus died in our place, suffered punishment that really belonged to us. But there are other theories, other attempts to understand the meaning of Jesus’ cross-born death.

I appreciate something Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote about 60 years ago. He said that it isn’t by understanding that we are saved. Knowledge doesn’t save us, any more than our works can. “Here,” Barth said, “is a truth we cannot understand – we can only stand under this truth.” Beneath the cross of Jesus.

The Greeks wished to see Jesus, as in, perhaps they wished to understand him. He answered their request in a sort of literal way, that soon enough, everyone on earth would see him lifted up, and indeed it is true.

Preachers will tell you that there are lots of pulpits around the country where some well-meaning person has placed a plaque which the preacher can see upon entering the pulpit, which says, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” There was a plaque like that in the pulpit in Port Arthur, Texas. It is a daunting thing to read, seeming like more than any weak, human vessel can hope to achieve with our mere words.

But this isn’t a task for preachers, not alone anyway. We know this because Jesus, upon responding to the request of the Greeks, makes an oblique sort of statement. At least it can seem that way. They want to see Jesus, and he begins speaking about his coming crucifixion, saying, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

The only way the world will see Jesus is through the fruit that will be born among his followers from his dying and rising. What dies within us can bear fruit, even though the harvest may not be what we had expected. The death of a dream or an ambition, of a relationship or a cherished hope, can be raised in some new form we never anticipated, providing we don’t love our life as it is so much that we are afraid, we will lose it.

When all they wanted to do was see him, Jesus spoke about his death and how it would serve life in the future. And it probably worked on the Greeks who approached the disciples, as well as the disciples themselves, as our own little deaths and losses affect us, in the midst of indecision and turmoil.

The death that serves life, is, paradoxically, one of the ways we can “see” Jesus.

Jesus’ teaching is fairly easy to understand on the literal level, that a single grain of wheat in two years of successive harvests, can produce 32,000 grains when the earth yields its increase, enough to feed a whole village when one little grain is sacrificed. Most of us eat meat, all of us eat grain, and in the process, whether we acknowledge it or not, we know that death serves life in a multitude of ways, just in the natural order of things. We also know that the gift of living organs upon our death can serve life, and we hope that they will. Loss can become gain when compassion intervenes.

We also know that there are times when loss is irreplaceable and seems senseless. Sometimes the grain falls to the earth and seems not to be reborn, and it takes tremendous will to turn it into something beyond bitterness. Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving are born of the desire to remake death and loss into something resembling life for others.

There are many little deaths in life, deaths that precede the final end of the life we know, little deaths that are real losses to us, and learning how to turn them toward life is a spiritual art. It truly is. But when we do, when, through the grace of God, we can, what dies within us can bear fruit.

Several years ago there was a Public Television program on the problem of hunger in India. The TV camera panned the landscape, revealing a dry, rocky, pathetic little village populated by desperate people. They had lost crop after crop to a seemingly endless series of droughts which, combined with their rock-strewn landscape, made farming appear increasingly futile. What were they to do? Without a crop, they would starve.

But an engineer came to the area and told them, “The stones you now curse will become your salvation!” He told them to gather stones and bring them to a low area outside the village. How could stones help feed them, some wondered. But they brought the stones. And when the monsoon rains came, the low area became a lake, and the waters of the little lake proved sufficient to water their crops through the dry season, and the village flourished.

The stones you now curse will become your salvation. What we have already given up as loss, Jesus says, is where we will see him, where we will find our lives. The course of events, the course of our own lives, often throws our dreams, our ambitions overboard, and we wonder why this death, why this loss?[3] Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

And in bearing such fruit, we will see Jesus.

And so will the world.

So will the world.

copyright 2012 © Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] I John 3:2.

[2] New Interpreters Bible, Vol. IX, Abingdon, p. 711.

[3] I am thankful to George Chorba for his sermon, “When Death Serves Life,” for seminal ideas in this sermon.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Drawing Near with Songs of Joy

Drawing Near with Songs of Joy

Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22 – John 12:1-11

© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

4th Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2012

Gathered in from the lands,

from the east and from the west,

from the north and from the south...

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love...

... and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

As most of you probably know, seminary students of the Presbyterian persuasion, preparing for careers in ministry, all have to take courses and pass exams in the biblical languages: Hebrew and Greek. No other denomination that I know of requires this, though some encourage it. And Presbyterian congregations may be either happier or sorrier for it, depending on how often it is inflicted on them on Sunday mornings – no one wants a linguistics lesson on Sundays instead of a sermon. But like it or not, pastors for this church in the past, present, and foreseeable future will have to have demonstrated some facility in Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek in preparing for ministry. It’s not a requirement that seems destined to go away. The idea is that it helps keep our pastors from being entirely dependent on translators for our understanding of scripture.

And I have been glad for that, I have to say, for almost 38 years in ministry so far. As with the study of any foreign language, study of the biblical languages helps a person realize that translations of the Bible are very often more art than science. If you studied any foreign language such French or Spanish or German for any length of time, and gained enough facility to read a novel or play in an original language other than English, you will know that it can be a disappointment to have to go back to reading a translation. The phrase “lost in translation” is a frequent reality in any movement from one language to another, which is especially evident to anyone who has used an internet website to obtain a computerized translation from English to, say, Spanish.

Probably every student of French since the 1950s has had to read Le Petit Prince – The Little Prince. One of the most famous lines of that little book ends a dialogue between the prince and a fox. In English translation, the fox’s parting words read, “And now here is my secret ... It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It is a lovely thought, but in French it sounds like a lovely thought set to a melody, maybe even in my battered pronunciation from my years-ago school days: “Voici mon secret ... on ne voit bien qu’avec le ceour. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”[1]

Every translation carries with it some imprint of the point of view of the translator. That is one reason why it is important to read the Bible in some other version than our favorite translation now and then. When we do, it gives us just a hint of the need to take the meanings of the English words in which we read the Bible with some degree of humility about their absolute meaning.

I think folks in Bible studies I have led over the years would attest to the fact that I find this to be continually fascinating. Take just one word from our Psalm reading for today. The word is translated “steadfast love.”

Even a casual student of the English Bible will recognize that the phrase “steadfast love” occurs multiple times in scripture. And if you have ever noticed that, congratulations on your observant reading of scripture! The Hebrew word translated as steadfast love is one of the first words that students of biblical Hebrew learn: cheséd. That little word occurs 127 times in the Psalms alone, and some 241 times in the Old Testament. We might not spot it every time in translation, because translators are doing their job of translating the word in context, and no single English word or phrase can fully do it justice. So it is variously translated as “loving kindness,” “mercy,” “goodness,” “grace,” “kindness,” and, that old favorite, “steadfast love.” In fact, in the phrase of the beloved 23rd Psalm that we remember as “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me...” the word translated as “mercy” in that context is our old Hebrew friend, cheséd: “steadfast love.” Surely goodness and God’s steadfast love shall follow me…

There can only be one reason why this word is such a favorite in the Old Testament, and in the poetry of the psalms in particular. It is because it so perfectly captures, in a single expression, all that God has done for God’s people, something of the very essence and nature of God.

And the psalm declares at the outset that the steadfast love of God endures. It not only endures, it endures for all time, endures forever.

Here is something worth remembering, when we search for the love of God in the midst of the trials of our lives. The phrase does not say “the steadfast love of God lasts forever.” Our trials are accompanied by a God who walks through them with us, so the observation of the Psalmist is that “the steadfast love of God endures forever.” The love of God is not an easy, sunshiny day love, but a love characterized by endurance, of the sort Paul described when he said love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[2] This is a love that bears, tolerates, suffers, undertakes, carries on and presses on no matter what. That is the cheséd of God.

David Livingstone was probably the most well-known 19th century Scottish medical foreign missionary, best remembered through Henry Stanley’s famous phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame. But perhaps the next best-known Scottish missionary, especially in the far East as well as in the New England states and Eastern Canada, was Alexander Duff. During his trip to the Americas in the 1850s he became so popular that today there are still some half dozen churches in Ontario carrying his name: “Duff’s Churches.”[3]

Duff made a voyage to India with the specific purpose of bringing the gospel to the high caste Hindus, the Brahmins of high social standing, who valued good education. He packed 800 books to take for his library in India. As his ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope, it hit rocks and sank. Passengers and crew managed to escape with their lives, but not much else. A sailor walking the beach a while later spotted an object washed up on the shore. When he picked it up he realized it was a large copy of the Bible and there was also a copy of a Scottish psalm book. Duff’s name was on each volume. When he took them to the place where the passengers had sought shelter, Duff received them and turned immediately to our psalm for today, Psalm 107, reading it in its entirety to those who had been rescued, with all 6 repetitions of God’s “steadfast love.”[4]

OK, God’s love is steadfast in every sense of the word. But where does today’s passage from the gospel tie in? Or does it? Well, not all scripture ties together into neat little bundles, but I think the tie-in for this day could go something like this:

God’s steadfast love endures forever. Now that is saying something, because as anyone who has ever been to a funeral knows, forever is not a subject human beings can discuss with any claim to direct experience. There is Jesus, sitting in the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead, but we all know he would still have to die again some day, he wasn’t raised from death into some superhuman state. He remained mortal.

But everything about the scene in the gospel exudes something of a funereal quality. There is the previously dead Lazarus there. There is the anointing of Jesus’ feet with a costly ointment, something normally reserved, in those days, for the anointing of dead bodies before burial. And in case we missed the point, John reported that the aroma of the ointment filled the whole house.

Now there are probably a dozen ways to take Judas’ words about the waste of such costly stuff when there were poor folks who could have been fed with the money it cost to buy it. But I take it this way today: The steadfast love of God comes to us in hints and brief revelations throughout our lifetimes if we are looking for it, and in that moment, at Lazarus’ dinner table, the lesson was that when Jesus came to die, it would not mean the end of the steadfast love of God, any more than the death of the kings of Israel meant that God had ceased to care, or that the defeat of the nation when it was taken into exile meant God’s love was no longer steadfast. It just meant that the steadfastness of God’s love was once again to be tested through endurance. God’s love is enduring, through death, loss, disfigurement, dashed hopes, defeated dreams, in any and every circumstance, the love of God will remain steadfast and endure, just the way the love of a parent will endure almost anything for a child, even when all others have given up hope. Only more so for God’s part.

For John’s gospel, as well as the psalmist, “life is double-plotted ... ordinary events unfold around us but ... hidden among all the mundane props are signs of the eternal. The wine is in the water, the light in the darkness, the Word in the flesh.”[5] The rising is hidden in the dying, the saving is hidden in the losing. The steadfastness of the love of God is hidden in the enduring, even when we could swear from all outward signs that it had disappeared altogether.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Gallimard, 1946, p. 72.

[2] I Corinthians 13:7.

[3]; see also

[4] Thanks to the Rev. Terri Thomas’ unpublished paper with these words paraphrased from a sermon by Donald A. MacLeod, “Thanks Telling,” preached October 13, 2002.

[5] “Gospel Sound Track” by Tom Long, Christian Century, April 1, 2001, p.11.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Zeal For Your House

Zeal For Your House

3rd Sunday of Lent: March 11, 2012

Psalm 69

John 2:13-22

Zeal for your house will consume me.

Zeal. Zealous. Zealot. The words that derive from the little term zeal, have fallen on hard times. They have become synonyms for words like “fanatic” or stand next to unsavory adjectives, as in “crazed zealot.” The primary word – zeal – generally receives mixed reactions, and while the second term – zealous – doesn’t fare quite as well, the noun, zealot, now that has come to have an almost entirely negative modern connotation. A zealot has come to be used to identify a mindless, fanatical commitment to some portion of the truth as if it were able to stand for the whole thing. In a 1913 poem called “Absolute and Abitofhell,” – a title that has to be seen written and understood in literary context[1] to be fully appreciated – poet Ronald Knox wrote,

When suave politeness, tempering bigot zeal,

Corrected I believe to One does feel.

Interesting that the poet felt the need to add that adjective to the word zeal, rendering it “bigot zeal.” My desktop dictionary[2] goes about defining the term zeal and terms related to zeal in this way:

· “zeal: eagerness and ardent interest in pursuit of something.”

Fairly tame, that definition. But how about the related terms also listed there in my dictionary? They do not fare as well in popular understanding, I’m afraid:

· “zealot: A zealous person, especially a fanatical partisan.”

· “zealotry: Excess of zeal; fanatical devotion.”

· “zealous: filled with or characterized by zeal: missionaries.”

Missionaries? The overworked doctor in the missionary compound dispensing medicine for the suffering villagers gathered outside his door? The committed missionary teacher in the thatched hut, instructing rooms full of children how to read and write? Zealots related to those consumed by fanatical devotion? That little addition in the definition surprised me. It hardly seems fair, I have to say. Missionaries I have known are committed, faithful, self-sacrificing, yes, but if they are to be called zealous, then we may need to review any word association we make that connects zealotry with fanaticism.

Have you ever met a zealot? Who was it? How did you know he or she was a zealot? How was that experience for you? Annoying? Frightening? Disturbing? I suspect that usually we think of a zealot as someone who will not be deterred from his or her cause, no matter what, I think we may probably agree on that. And we tend to carry among us the notion that this is almost uniformly a bad thing. Yet, on the other hand, is an equivocating or constantly rationalizing faith always a good thing? Aren’t there aspects of our faith, times in our lives of faith, which call for a complete commitment? Even a measure of – I don’t know, dare we say it? – zeal?

Here is a difficult thing for most of us: If you ever were confronted by an uncompromising zealot who would not back down and who made you uncomfortable and perhaps even a little frightened, then you know how many of those felt who encountered Jesus. This is what makes our passage for today difficult for me. Jesus as zealot. That’s not the Jesus I want. I want sweet Jesus meek and mild, I am attracted to Jesus the lover of my soul, Jesus the wise and wonderful, Jesus the pure expression of the loving and forgiving grace of God, all these characteristics attract me to Jesus. But Jesus as zealot? These days we are likely to think of a zealot as someone who would cut out the heart of a child if it would advance a cause they believed in, as marauding Taliban laying waste to obstinate Pakistani villages, as wild-eyed fanatics who cannot see beyond their own blind loyalties to their tribe or faction. Yet it is not fair to leave it at that. Not if we read in scripture that Jesus is associated with a term like “zeal.”

The disciples, seeing Jesus in action in the temple, thought of a psalm, which makes use of the word “zeal.” “His disciples remembered,” John said, “that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” Verses from the Old Testament, when quoted in the New Testament, are meant to call to mind an entire passage, not just a random line: as when Jesus uttered from the cross the chilling opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We are meant to think of that entire psalm, which speaks of the suffering of a righteous one, and a prayer that righteous one makes that God will come near, that God will save, the sort of prayer any of us would, and likely have made, at some time.

Here, seeing the teacher, whom they have only just begun to follow, chasing the animals from the temple precincts and turning over the money tables, the disciples recall a half-verse from Psalm 69. But they surely recalled the entire psalm, and we are meant to recall it too. It goes like this:

Save me, O God,

for the waters have come up to my neck.

I sink in deep mire,

where there is no foothold;

I have come into deep waters,

and the flood sweeps over me.

I am weary with my crying;

my throat is parched.

My eyes grow dim

with waiting for my God.

More in number than the hairs of my head

are those who hate me without cause;

many are those who would destroy me,

my enemies who accuse me falsely.

What I did not steal

must I now restore?

O God, you know my folly;

the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.

Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me,

O Lord GOD of hosts;

do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me,

O God of Israel.

It is for your sake that I have borne reproach,

that shame has covered my face.

I have become a stranger to my kindred,

an alien to my mother’s children.

It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;

the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.

When I humbled my soul with fasting,

they insulted me for doing so.

When I made sackcloth my clothing,

I became a byword to them.

I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate,

and the drunkards make songs about me.

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD.

At an acceptable time, O God,

in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.

With your faithful help

rescue me from sinking in the mire;

let me be delivered from my enemies

and from the deep waters.

Do not let the flood sweep over me,

or the deep swallow me up,

or the Pit close its mouth over me.

I hope you hear in this fuller quotation from Psalm 69[3] echoes of the cross and Jesus’ suffering on it. Part of what these words foreshadow in our minds, and the minds of the disciples, is the cross to come. It is Jesus’ uncompromising zeal that has done it. His zeal for the truth brings condemnation on him in the end. John quotes the phrase about zeal for the house of the Lord, as Paul quotes the second half of that verse in Romans 15:3, “For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’” Jesus stands in for God himself, to receive the insults that humanity daily heaps upon him.

A new and perfect sacrifice for the sake of the sins of all people had arrived at the temple. There would be no further need for sacrificial animals. The foreshadowing of Psalm 69 shows that in the sacrifice of Jesus, the need for other ritual sacrifices came to an end. Matthew, Mark and Luke all place the temple cleansing at the end of Jesus’ ministry, while John places it here in the beginning. So scholarly debate has continued on and on over the years as to which placement is right. Was the temple cleansing a precipitating event for Jesus’ arrest and execution as Matthew, Mark and Luke have it, or was it just the second in a long list of acts of ministry, as John seems to have it?

It is the recollection from Psalm 69 of the zeal for the house of God that ties all four gospels together in seeing this as connected with the ultimate sacrifice of the Messiah on the cross. For John, the chronological timing is not so important as the self-sacrificing Messianic implications that are wrapped up in each event of Jesus’ ministry. So, though it is reported early here, Jesus’ actions in the temple foreshadow the cross coming at the end as surely as zeal for the house of God will bring suffering at the hands of those who despise God and all who seek him.

It is interesting that among most Presbyterians, any time we begin to talk of zeal for our faith, or even the zeal of Christ, we will soon hear someone begin to say that it is the zealots that have caused all the trouble in the world, the fanatics who have so much commitment to their faith that they fail to take into account the rest of the world, the crazed tyrants, the Osama bin Ladens, all the cults of darkness that have consumed so many people over the years.

About this I have two thoughts. One is that there is little danger among the Presbyterians I have had the pleasure of knowing that our zeal for our faith will carry us off very far from our good sense. Born, as our denomination was, from a tradition of Scots common sense theology, we just don’t seem much in danger of wandering off with some fanatic. Second, though, is this. As frightening as the prospect of a real and significant zeal for our faith might strike us, it is this very sort of commitment which changes limp, moribund faith into faith that lives. Most young people do not despise the idea of giving their lives for something, it is giving their lives for something insignificant that they despise. If our faith is the most significant thing about us, then why can we not follow the Messiah, give our lives to it, body and soul, and hear the call to do something heroic, even zealous for our faith?

So, odd as it may sound, I pray that zeal for God’s house would consume our common thoughts and actions, so that together we may carry forward not the dusty ashes, but the zealous fire of our faith into our future together.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

[1] Essays in Satire, by Ronald Knox-1888-1957, (Sheed and Ward, 1928). Knox’s poem was written in ‘heroic couplets’ after the manner of John Dryden’s then-well-known “Absalom and Achitophel,” exactly in the manner of a 17th century polemic.

[2] Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1984, Merriam-Webster, Inc.

[3] Psalm 69:1-15, NRSV.