Only the Beginning of a Larger Story
Hebrews 10:5- 10
Merry Christmas! Those words at one time brought to mind the good news of God sending his son as our savior. He came into a world divided between outsiders and insiders, and in the ministry of Jesus that division was overcome. With Jesus there were no outsiders unless one chooses to be. This is what the carol "Joy to the World" is saying. The Lord is come. Happy birthday, Jesus. Happy day, world, because of the gift of Jesus.
Today I am working with two themes taken from the lectionary scriptures in Luke 1 and Hebrews 10. What stands out in Mary's story is her emphatic "yes" to the invitation of the Holy Spirit to be the mother of the incarnation of the Word of God in human flesh. In saying "yes," she was given the vision to see what this meant: scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things – to Abraham and all his descendants forever; and Mary' reception of what this was going to cost as spoken by the prophet Simeon: "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
And the text from Hebrew 10:5, the author is speaking about a new plan – God's way – by which we are made fit for God by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. He is bearing witness to the world-shaking power of Jesus' offering of his life on the cross. Thank you, Jesus.
Unfortunately, this expression Merry Christmas has shrunk into a friendly greeting. Today I want to start us on the path of recovering that powerful meaning.
Martin Heidegger offers what I hear as a true and powerful definition of meaning. He says "Only that which presents as possibility-for-me, that is something I can decide, has meaning." Meaning thus is different from sharing information or greeting. It is sharing possibility – for you and for me, something we can decide, something real and concrete, not theoretical.
The Bible describes the Jesus story, his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection and his second coming as "good news" – that is, news that is full of meaning and possibility. Good news is special news, true news not fake news, news that generates hope. Let's think about this.
For example, three weeks ago I shared with you the good news of my cancer doctor telling me that over the last four months the malignant tumor in my liver has shrunk significantly – almost by half. When I shared my good news, you received it as good news for you too as you clapped and cheered. That response warmed my heart.
Previously, I had requested your prayers particularly that I be given the time and the physical and mental energy to finish the book I have been working on for several years. Thanks to your and my prayers, I am happy to report that I am now starting on the 12th and final chapter. I will be sharing some of that work with you today.
To what do I attribute this good news. Is it the Xeloda chemotherapy pills or the prayers? I believe it is both – medical science and prayer working together. The Xeloda pills may have shrunk the cancer, but they haven't been giving me the energy and inspiration to finish this book. That comes from prayer and my perseverance which also comes from prayer. And I say to you, I am deeply grateful. Please keep it up.
When we pray, we indicate that we believe that there are two interfacing realms of reality in human existence. One is the world in which we live and the other is a transcendent world that impinges on this world. When we pray, we invite the transcendent world to impact life in this world. So, in praying for me you are requesting the transcendent order to enable me to put on paper thoughts that will make a difference and communicate fresh vision in thinking about Jesus and his death on the cross.
My aspiration in this book is to translate into understandable language the good news of the Jesus story as told in the Bible. This morning, before getting into scripture, let me tell you three brief contemporary stories that, I think, present possibility for a powerful understanding of the good news of the Gospel in language we all understand.
The first story occurred two weeks ago in Mike Brown's class on Christian community. Mike had invited Ann Barnet and me as guests to share what attracted us to the Church of the Saviour years ago and 8th Day now. Ann shared how she had been raised by devoutly religious parents who had converted from Judaism to Christianity. They were very conservative and Ann absorbed their teaching, their example and love. When she got to college and med school, however she ran into a brick wall as she thought about the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. All she could think about was her question of how a loving God could allow that suffering. She also thought alongside the lynching and oppression of black people without any law to protect black people from atrocity. How could a loving God allow this? She had no answer and concluded that either God did not exist or else turned away, and she could not believe in a god who did that. As Ann described the piled-up bodies waiting to be thrown into a mass grave, the thought came to me that the same thing happened to Jesus. He was one of those piled up bodies which God had allowed to die an atrocious death. The thought also came to me that the god in whom Ann at that time ceased to believe was more monster than loving father.
A few nights later I was watching a program on Maryland Public Television which gave me another perspective. The program was about the start and development of Music Row in Nashville, which has become the center of the country and western music industry in the US. I went to college in Nashville which was also the home of my first wife. I have a strong affinity with the city. The TV camera moved across the old houses converted into studios on 16th and 17th Streets. At one point it focused on a former church converted into a recording studio. Seeing that church, I realized it had been the Episcopal church in which my oldest brother, Rumsey, had been married and I had been a groomsman.
The program narrator described the uniqueness of Music Row as a community of fellow musicians who focused on supporting one another rather than engaging in cut-throat competition. He shared an anecdote which caught the spirit of the place. A newcomer musician had sought out an established star for advice on how to get started. To his surprise the star had welcomed his request for advice and freely shared his own experience. Near the end of the conversation the star had said to the newcomer, "This is something I want you to remember. Although I am now a celebrity, I am not better than you. In fact, I am you. I have walked in your shoes. I have experienced your anxiety and your aspiration. I am you."
This is what God brought to pass in allowing Jesus to be subjected to the horrid death of crucifixion which in its time was the equivalent of death by electric chair. It transmitted the Roman Empire message to the public, that if you cross the line set by the state this will also happen to you, only in the US today it happens mostly to poor people, rarely to anyone of means.
My imagination takes me to Jesus' believability in saying to every man and woman facing struggle and death, especially the poor: "I am you." This presents possibility, something we can decide.
The very next night, after watching the public television program on Music Row, I was surfing my TV and stopped to watch an old Turner classic movie, Blackboard Jungle, the story of an idealistic school teacher and Christ-figure teaching a class of alienated teenagers in the poor part of a large city. I had seen the movie over 50 years ago. I knew the plot but couldn't resist seeing it again. Glen Ford played the role of the Christ figure and Sydney Poitier initially his antagonist who became his friend.
The class was clearly controlled by a student who epitomized anger, cynicism and chaos. The other students fell in line like the Republicans upon the election of Barack Obama. His one goal was to make the teacher fail and enjoy his ability to do that. Initially there was no learning going on or interest in learning. Every action and reaction was directed at making the teacher look bad.
The reason the movie hooked me was the way it mirrored the world into which God sent his son, Jesus, a world in which a champion of cynicism and chaos held sway whom the Bible refers to as Satan. The biblical plot of the Jesus story is the fall of Satan which Blackboard Jungle mirrors.
Let me quickly jump to the end and compare it to the Jesus story. After pulling us through the pain and hopelessness of the teacher and the rest of the faculty in that school, Blackboard Jungle has a Hollywood ending--the good guy wins and his example changes the culture of the entire school. Based on his success, other teachers take heart, use innovative teaching methods and the movie ends anticipating that they are on the way to achieving good results.
The Jesus story does not end this way. Its initial ending is Jesus as a failure, which seems to leave the antagonist Satan still in charge. However, in the biblical story Jesus' life and death are only the beginning of a larger story, the story not just of the one set in Palestine in the first century C.E. but the story of the whole creation and all humankind.
The difference-maker was the resurrection, which in scripture is not about the resuscitation of a corpse but the transformation of Jesus into a new spiritual body as a harbinger of your and my bodies and all God's people after death.
A professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, Stephen Cook, in his book The Apocalyptic Literature, says that Paul never conceived of the resurrection as an experience unique to Jesus, the Messiah, but that Christ's resurrection was a harbinger of the end times. Dale Allison writes that the resurrection of the dead, when it appears in Jewish sources, is a collective experience, not something that happens to an isolated individual, and it is associated with a number of supernatural events, such as the last judgment. Cook says that Jesus is clear that God's reign is coming to earth whether human beings cooperate or not. Jesus and the disciples earnestly summon people to repent and believe in what God is doing in history – that is, preparing the way for the transformation not only of individuals but of the world into a new creation.
Modern culture has three ways of telling the Jesus story. One is the Enlightenment-tradition way. The Enlightenment tradition began in the 17th century and paved the way for modern science. In this it provided a great service to humankind, but it overshot its landing strip and dismissed human belief in two realms in reality, the immanent earthly realm and the transcendent realm, the dwelling place of the divine, contending that the earthly realm is the only one it acknowledges. According to a thoroughgoing Enlightenment disciple, the Jesus story stopped with his death. The rest of the story, the resurrection and the promise of a second coming of Jesus is pure myth and speculation.
The second contemporary way of interpreting the Jesus story began in the early part of the 20th century as a protest against the skepticism of the Enlightenment way. This is the way of fundamentalism. It initially took hold in seminaries and churches across the country. For two decades it seemed to be winning the battle of ideas until the Scopes Trial in Cleveland, TN. In that trial in 1926, the celebrated Enlightenment advocate, Clarence Darrow made his opposing attorney, William Jennings Bryan, the advocate for fundamentalism look like an intellectual numbscull. In that contest fundamentalism was embarrassed and went underground until the l960s and 70s when it resurfaced as the driving force of evangelicalism. The impact of Fundamentalism has been to interpret the Jesus story as applying solely to the individual and individual salvation, leaving God's restoration of covenant community on earth in the background.
The third way of reading the Jesus story, an alternative to both the Enlightenment way and Fundamentalism, emerged soon after World War I with the publication of a commentary on the book of Romans by the German Karl Barth. Barth's counsel was to listen to the text as written, wrestle with it, let your imagination and all sound scholarship that is available help you hear what it has to say. This is the way in which I stand and speak to you today. Both Ann Barnet and I were raised under the influence of fundamentalism and in college and graduate school were exposed to the Enlightenment tradition. What attracted both of us to the Church of the Saviour was Gordon Cosby's and the church's deep grounding in the third way of working with the text as it stands and letting good scholarship and imagination guide the community to the meaning of the text – that is, how it presents possibility for you and me, something we can decide. Elizabeth O'Connor called that decision "Call to Commitment."
Returning to the movie, Blackboard Jungle, in the light of the third way of reading scripture, the movie ends as a resurrection story without death on the cross. Glen Ford, the Christ figure, did not have to die, because he enlisted enough classroom support from the quiet black student played by Sydney Poitier and those who looked up to him to turn the table on the cynical satanic, knife-wielding figure who previously controlled the class.
According to scripture, Jesus' death on the cross was far more God's doing than Satan's. Jesus' death unleashed the thunder and earthquake of Jesus declaring to all humanity "I am you. Now you can have a new beginning in this life and anticipate being given a transformed existence for eternity. Only God has the power to do this, and by means of the cross, resurrection and second coming, God's word, Jesus makes it happen.
My last word is that there is no way of foretelling what lies ahead in the next few years. It could be catastrophe after catastrophe or it could be emerging from darkness into light or both. Whatever happens in the short run, scripture gives us a picture of the long-run over which God is in charge and that means we are safe alive or translated by resurrection into a new eternal body.
My hope is that we will use this interim time to dig together deeply into God's word.