Archive for 2019

John 2:1-11

What causes you to believe? I like watching the old Perry Mason episodes on TV. Perry is defense lawyer and he is always going to court for a client that everyone believes is guilty. The hour of the show works like this: the show begins with one person saying to another, "I wish you were dead." The second person invariably ends up murdered and the police collect evidence that makes it pretty easy for the DA, Mr. Burger, to prove that Perry's client did indeed murder the person that they had wished dead. For some reason, though, Perry believes in his client and has the patience to follow a faint trail of bread crumbs until leads him to the real murderer. In the last fifteen minutes of the show, Perry leads the court through a series of witnesses that prove his client couldn't have done it. The guilty party is then forced into a confession. After the commercial, Perry's secretary always asks him how he believed in the client when no one else did. Perry smiles and shakes his head, as if it would be so logical if they had believed in his client from the beginning like he did.


Is faith in Jesus like that? Note that in every Perry Mason episode we, the viewers, find ourselves first believing one thing, then brought to doubt, then brought to believe in something else. This happens relatively rarely in real life. We are all victims of something called confirmation bias. We decide, sometimes on the basis of very little evidence, that something is true. We might use a particular brand of soap, because we believe it works better than another. Even with a side by side test, or an article in Consumer Reports that rates our product last, we remain true believers. We might be in a problematic relationship. They might be abusive. Still, because of this thing that psychologists call confirmation bias, we stick with them. On the other hand, our neighbor might be a good and decent person, yet because of prejudice or a false rumor that we accepted, we might not trust them. 


John begins his gospel with a series of seven little miracle stories. John assumes that his reader doesn't believe in Jesus. He has an uphill task, as he writes, for most people in his day and in ours, have a confirmation bias against really believing in Jesus. Oh, most people think Jesus was a great man and had something to do with religion. But few today really see Jesus as the son of the true God sent to earth to save us. John, though, remembers when he overcame his own bias against Jesus. John remembers standing there watching water being taken from a jar and as it is offered to the host of the wedding party, it becomes wine. This is the moment when John's confirmation bias is overcome.


For the rest of his gospel John is like Perry Mason. He calls forth his witnesses one by one. The wedding of Cana is the first of seven episodes. In it a few people really see what is happening. Everyone drinks the wine and wonders where it came from. Everyone has a good time. But only John and a few others see both the miracle and the meaning of it. If Jesus makes new wine and offers it abundantly for all, then the era of God's grace must be beginning. The good news is that our dull lives can be changed, just as this wash water can become the finest wine.  


All of this is hidden in the first miracle. Not everyone can be Perry Mason and believe from the beginning. But we all can change. There is not a single person who can't give up their prejudice and worldliness and become a believer in Jesus Christ. The last of the seven miracles involves a man who has been dead for four days. Even Jesus' disciples don't believe that he can do anything for the man named Lazarus. John tells us how Jesus had the tombstone rolled away and Lazarus called back into the living. Seeing this, many come to faith. But as we live our lives, we have to deal with our faith and our doubts with such subtle evidence. Like Perry Mason, we need wisdom to accept the truth early, but also, to be willing to dismiss the falsehoods and prejudices that can cause us to make bad decisions.

If you were on the stand, would you witness for Jesus?
Epiphany 2
Isaiah 43:1-7
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you... Do not fear, for I have redeemed you...

The forty-third chapter of Isaiah always reminds me of a rugged lumberjack who used to attend the little church at Prouty in the heart of Pennsylvania’s northern wilderness. He had gotten himself in trouble in the woods many times. Sudden spring rains would swell the brook he needed to cross. The hillsides are steep and it’s easy to slip and find oneself swept down the Sinnemahoning Creek. He always found, though, that "God is a hand in high water.”

Isaiah says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you..."(Isaiah 43:2).  There are two ways of understanding the "you" here, just as God always uses two hands when doing something important like saving us. 

First is the personal you, for each of as individuals keep discovering God to be our only real security in an uncertain world. We remember particular illnesses, accidents, and narrow escapes where we depended upon his hand in our high water. Isaiah's deeper point here is that even when we don't escape injury, God is with us. It's the Lord's steady companionship that as we mature as Christians, we grow to appreciate.

Second, the context of Isaiah implies that God is making these promises to the nation of Israel. They are the ones who are in high water with both their captivity in Babylon and their return to the Promised Land. The neighborhood has become rough, while they were away. It's not certain that they will survive as an independent people.

To this struggling people, God's message is that they should not be afraid, for God has both created and redeemed them. Redemption is the hand in high water. Creation is the relationship that precedes the rescue. Isaiah 43 reminds people that both are at play. God's ownership of us through the fact of his creation insures that He will not let us go.

Each of us have been created twice. On the one hand, we have been birthed into this world as unique individuals. God has a plan for each of us. Unfortunately, everyone else does too. We pray for our creator to help us discern what He has created in us.

On the other hand, we believe that God has both created and owned our nation. We must be careful here, I am not advocating the concept of American exceptionalism, even though Isaiah 43 was a favorite text for the great revivalists of the 1800s. Our experience is that of God making our country uniquely great, just as the people of Israel heard the prophets and thought of their own land. The people of every nation will hear God speaking to them in terms of their own history and polity. Each people of God will have their own struggle to make justice roll down like an ever-flowing stream in their country. We are called to further the freedom of all people, by sacrificing to keep our own nation free. As we work collectively together, we must discern the will of God without political bias.

Most of us will hear God's "I will be with you..." in a third way. God is also the great protector of our current home, the people we love, as well as our family of origin. Further He is present with our particular ethnic people. We must be careful here again, just as American exceptionalism is a problem, so also thoughtless or prejudicial pride in our people is wrong.

We must learn to pray without prejudice and make collective decisions without bias.

We find God in both the still water and the storm
Epiphany 2
Matthew 2:1-10

King Herod wasn’t called the Great for nothing. He was a scrappy outsider who came into his throne by subtly playing the political game more ruthlessly than his rivals. He was a builder, a maker of high fortress towers and the developer of entertainment properties (note he built a Greek style stadium in Jerusalem). His most famous project was the Temple. He demolished the humble structure that had stood on the temple mount — the one that had been constructed by the prayers and sacrifices of the Babylonian refugees under Nehemiah and made pure by the miracle of Hanukah under the Maccabees — Yes, that is the temple that Herod tore down. He built a lavish monument to his own name in its place. The temple that Herod spent forty years building felt so worldly that the Romans couldn’t understand why they couldn’t use it for sacrifices to their emperor. Forty years after Jesus, the Romans grew tired of Herod’s people and destroyed both the temple and the nation. Even though Herod had established a great dynasty and left his descendants in charge of his empire, he didn’t establish a nation built on justice with peace and prosperity for all. Under the Herodians the rich became very rich, but the poor had no friend in high places except Jesus.


Like Herod, Jesus was an outsider. His parentage was uncertain. He grew up in the projects, far from the courts and the Temple. He never built anything. He never published a royal decree, let alone a book. All of his teachings were recorded by others. He told stories that involved shepherds and farmers and dealt with everyday life. He never tweeted or took pot-shots at his rivals. He reasoned with his detractors. He healed and answered the prayers of all who came to him, whether they be high born or poor, Romans or Jews, friends or foes.   


One key difference between Jesus and Herod the Great was that Jesus had a succession plan. Herod the Great seemed oblivious to the fact that he would die. Jesus came into the world in order to die for sinners. Herod considered anyone who challenged him to be disloyal and a threat. Jesus forgave his enemies and invited them into his kingdom. Herod expected his kingdom to pass to his sons, but he kept murdering family members as soon as they showed any interest in reigning. A few years after Herod the Great died the Romans had to step in and rescue the nation from what remained of the Herodians. They divided the kingdom up and put their Syrian governor (little irony here) in charge of things.  The Herodian family continued to wear crowns and rule on thrones in Galilee and Perea, but the Temple and Jerusalem were in foreign hands and run as a commercial enterprise funneling money to Rome.


Jesus had a better plan. From before the creation of the world he planned for his succession. He enlisted the Holy Spirit to rule in the hearts of those would accept his kingdom. We then, are responsible for fulfilling the promises of Isaiah. Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we bring peace and mercy to those around us. We continue Jesus’ rule of compassion and justice. We are a distributed network of righteousness. We are the Davidic rule that will go on forever.

I don't care who sits on the Iron Throne
Epiphany 1