Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Ants and Badgers, Locusts and Lizards

A favorite Scripture for today:

“Four things on earth are small, yet they are exceedingly wise:
the ants are a people without strength, yet they provide their food in the summer;
the badgers are a people without power, yet they make their homes in the rocks;
the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank;
the lizard can be grasped in the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces.”
(Proverbs 30:24-28)

The author of this proverb, one Agur son of Jakeh, sees things that most people glance right by. He sees the weak ant having enough to eat even through a desolate summers, the badgers craftily slinking to make their homes among the rocks. He sees the leaderless locusts march as if choreographed, and the charming lizard using his desirability to move up in the world, even to royal palaces.

All of these creatures, Agur says, are “small, yet exceedingly wise.” What would it mean to take that as a motto for our lives?

We all go through times of feeling completely inadequate to the task before us. Whether it’s writing a paper for class, the incomparable scary feeling of mounting the pulpit to speak a word that may become the Word of God for another’s life, or the growing recognition I will soon be a papa, I feel small when compared with the enormity of the tasks I face. And no doubt you feel that way sometimes too, no matter your daily tasks. There are days when each of us feels as if we simply cannot be the people God has made us to be, cannot do what lays before us.

And yet the ant, the badger, the locust and the lizard are all far more capable than they appear. Why? Because they are wise. They are resourceful. They know how to manage their unique gifts well, which more than compensates for their inadequacies.

You might even say that because they have certain shortcomings, they are more capable than they would be otherwise. Suppose the ant had strength: perhaps the strong ants would use their strength to their own benefit, while the weak ants would die off. Suppose the locust had a king: perhaps then they would gripe against the king instead of knowing how it was absolutely necessary for them to work together. Suppose the lizard were bigger: it would then be viewed as a threat instead of a charming pet, and so rather than making it into palaces, it would be hunted and killed. With these animals, the fact that they have weaknesses makes them capable of success.

Perhaps it is the same for us Christians. After all, we in the Western church can maintain the illusion that we have no weaknesses, that “every advantage” is given to us. We have freedom of religion, adequate finances to reach out to everyone around us, and are the heirs to a great tradition which values critical thinking. We of all Christians should be strong and seeing the Kingdom of God come to Earth. Yet we must face the fact that it is those who ought to be weaker who are indeed stronger. Perhaps it is true that “God’s power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)

Monday, April 03, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, April 2

We read in this passage that some Greeks had come to the Passover festival. There was a class of non-Jews known as “God-fearers.” This was a group of Gentiles who believed in the Jewish God and followed most of the Jewish law but were not full converts to Judaism. Judaism made a lot of requirements on its members, not the least of which were dietary laws and circumcision. Most Gentiles were not willing to completely do this, but they chose to worship the God of Israel nonetheless. These Greeks in this passage who came to the festival were in this class of “God-fearers.” They hadn’t completely cast their lot with God but by and large they followed him. They could go to the festivals but they could not go into the Inner Court, as that was reserved for Jews. In fact, they could be killed if they tried to enter the Inner Court.

And so these God-fearers had heard about Jesus, and from their place in the outer court, they manage to attract the attention of Jesus’ disciple Philip. Philip is a Greek name, and though Philip was not himself Greek, it is likely that he spoke Greek, which was not the case with all of the disciples. And they ask Philip if they might see Jesus. Apparently, they had heard about this Jesus, and they wanted to meet him for themselves, wanted to see what he was about.

Now, we might not think this is all that odd. After all, isn’t it natural that people would want to see Jesus? Yet Jesus has elsewhere made it clear that his mission was not to the Gentiles but to the Jews; at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus understood his mission as cleansing the house of Israel. And so it was a bit unusual for Jesus to be asked to appear by these non-Jews. Philip doesn’t quite know what to do with this request, and so he goes and asks Andrew, and Andrew doesn’t know either, so together they go and ask Jesus if he will come and show himself to the Gentiles.

Jesus responds, “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This might seem like a strange response to us: “Will you come and see these Gentiles?” We would answer “Yes” or “No.” But Jesus says, “The time has come for me to be glorified. However, Jesus’ response actually makes sense. When Jesus is saying, “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” he is saying now that this moment is a time when his mission is fundamentally changing. Before, he was here just for the people of Israel, but now Jesus is here to be glorified in a new way. When these few Gentiles ask him to appear, he takes the occasion to say, “Yes, and now I will be revealed to the whole world, not just Israel, but Gentiles too.”

And how is he to be revealed to all people? How is Jesus glorified? What does this mean? Jesus starts to answer this question now. He says, “Truly, truly, I tell you: unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it yields much fruit.” Jesus is here talking about the importance of his death in his mission. Jesus was an unparalleled teacher, a brilliant man; after all, he was God made flesh. And yet he was not merely a teacher; his vocation was not merely to come and teach us about God. He was more than just a teacher. His vocation also involved sacrifice, laying down his own life in order that others might be reconciled to God. That was the most essential part of his ministry.

I wonder if you have ever thought about Jesus being glorified in this way. Often, when we think of Jesus being glorified, we think of how we praise him in worship. We say things in worship like “We praise you” and “We glorify you.” And what we usually mean by glorifying God is saying, “God, we praise you, we honor you, we worship you.” And yet here when Jesus talks about being glorified, he says what will bring the most glory to God in this situation is not to be praised, but to die.

This is not easy for us to hear and it was not easy for Jesus to say. In the passage, he says, “What shall I say? Father, keep me from this hour? No, it was for this reason that I came to this hour. Father, may you be glorified in me.” Here, Jesus really wrestles with what he has just said; to be truly glorified, for his life to mean what God wants it to mean, he must lay himself down. And yet, like any person, he doesn’t want to lay down his life; nobody would. And so he says, “God, should I ask you to take this away? I know I can’t ask you to take it away; because it was for this reason that I came into the world; this is what I was made to do, even though it is so demanding, and so painful. My life would be incomplete and meaningless without this hour of suffering and death.”

A couple years ago, I had a root canal. I had the Novocaine shot in the gums, the whole drill. But the Novocaine didn’t completely work. It didn’t completely numb my gums. It mostly did, but every so often, as the dentist worked away on that tooth, there would be a sharp pain that shot through my mouth and caused me to wince pretty badly. When you’re in the dentist’s chair and the Novocaine’s not working, you have this awful feeling of being trapped. You have this sense that you are forgotten, that you’re all alone. The rest of the world is going on as normal and you’re just sitting there waiting for the next awful shot of pain that you know is coming but you can’t do anything about. You kind of sense that there is no way out except through the pain, and it seems that your whole world is consumed with pain; the pain you feel and the pain you’re worried you’re going to feel.

Jesus’ sense here is not altogether different; though, of course, his pain was much deeper and far more wracking. There is this foreboding; there are difficult times ahead. He knows there is significant pain looming; there is a crucifixion on the horizon and significant physical pain and emotional pain of rejection, all waiting in the meantime. There is a resurrection to come after this, but there is no way to focus on that now; instead, there seems to be only pain. And yet Jesus knows that this particular pain is part of the reason he has come into the world; that this suffering is his suffering, and there is no way out of that suffering except through it.

It says something about our God that Jesus associates being glorified with sacrificing himself. Our world does not understand being glorified in this way at all; to us, being glorified means that you have the best of everything. Those who are glorified are those that don’t have to sacrifice anything for anybody. To be glorified in our culture means that you have the biggest limo, the poshest accommodations, the most servants. And yet, for Jesus, being glorified means quite the opposite; it doesn’t mean the biggest limo, it means giving it all away; it doesn’t mean the poshest accommodations, it means that sometimes you have no place to lay your head; it doesn’t mean having the most servants, it means becoming a servant to all people.

This should point us to something in our own lives that we should be aware of; suffering on behalf of another person is not in vain. All of us know what it means to suffer for another person, to sacrifice something of our own comfort for the sake of someone else. We most often suffer on behalf of our children, don’t we? Having a child is not something one does because it’s easy, or because it’s rewarding every minute. Scooter hasn’t been rewarding every minute, and he/she’s not even born yet! We already have suffered on Scooter’s behalf, and as parents, we will suffer more. We will know great joy, but I’d have to go in completely blind to not think there will be suffering. And those of you whose children are born know what I’m talking about–there is sacrificial suffering, and it is in that sacrificial suffering that we glorify God. We glorify God through suffering for our children when we teach them to be like Christ even when it’s hard; when we work to keep them fed and clothed; when we lay aside personal ease for their benefit. This is glorifying to God.

And of course it’s far more than just our family. When we voluntarily give of our time, of our finances to another person, that glorifies God through sacrifice. Even more important, when we give ourselves away by making room in an already busy life for a relationship with a needy person, that glorifies God through sacrifice. When we take time to visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, refresh the thirsty, when we sacrifice of ourselves to do these things, we display the character of God as expressed here in Jesus.

The season of Lent is usually thought of as a season of challenge to grow more fully into the image of Christ. In fact, the three sermons I have preached during Lent have been very challenging; for those wanting to grow, they have challenged us to suffering, brokenness and the pursuit of truth. Not easy sermons to hear; not easy sermons to preach. They do challenge us.

But Lent is more than just a season of challenge. It also is a time where we reflect on the sacrificial suffering that is already present in our lives and realize–with joy!–that there is no suffering that exists outside of the watchful care of God. When we suffer on behalf of our aging parents or our sick children, when we suffer on behalf of another person, it is not simply meaningless suffering that we slog through. When we suffer this way, our suffering has meaning, deep beautiful significance. Our sacrificial suffering has meaning because this is how God suffers.

I wonder what it would mean if we approached just today with this mindset, that our suffering on behalf of others is not meaningless, but it is holy.

Maybe today you will arrive at home and go through the trouble of disciplining your child so they grow up to be strong in the Lord, and go through all the pain of loving your child in that vital way. What would it be like to know that it is not meaningless pain but that is the most holy thing you do on that day? This is not meaningless. This is holy.

Maybe today you will visit a loved one in a nursing home who no longer remembers you, and you feel pain deep down to the bottom of your soul and yet you spend time with them, open yourself to them even though it causes you pain. This is not meaningless suffering. This is holy.

Maybe today you will struggle with whether or not to take a new job that could help or hurt your family if you take it. As you suffer in deciding and suffer with your decision, this is not meaningless. This is holy. Suffering for the sake of another is never beyond the sight of God. Jesus said, “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” As you suffer, you give yourself away for others that your life may be fruitful and not lived for yourself alone.

Jesus, as usual, expresses this best: “The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for life eternal.” Jesus’ idea is that those who try to live a suffering-free life, those who try to live without sacrifice, never truly live. Those whose lives are strictly about self-assertion, about self-celebration, about self-protection, will never know true life. Those who isolate themselves from the poor, from the sick, from the emotionally needy, from the demanding, cannot know true life in Jesus’ way. For Jesus and all who would follow him, life becomes about giving our lives away.

And this is a paradox, but we find that when we give our lives away, we receive more life back than we ever knew before. When we lived in the old way, where we tried to protect and celebrate what we thought was ours, we were consumed with worry. When we pretended life was about self-assertion, we worried about what would happen when we grew old and could no longer assert ourselves. When we pretended life was about self-protection, we worried about what would happen when we went into a neighborhood other people said was dangerous, because how will we protect ourselves?

But now that we know life is about giving our lives away, we receive life we never knew was there. We see the joy in watching another grow because of God working through our sacrifice. We celebrate the chance to honor the image of God in the poor by feeding them and working to help them create a sustainable life for themselves. The people of God joyfully tramp without fear to places the world is afraid to go–into the inner cities, into the hospitals, into the nursing homes, into the wilderness, even into the church! Here, we suffer and yet we rejoice because our suffering and sacrifice is merely an echo of the suffering and sacrifice of our Lord. Because he suffered and truly lived, we too can live without fear of suffering; though we suffer, we know that it is not the final word.

Today, I urge you to see the areas in your life where you sacrifice on behalf of another. And instead of lamenting your suffering, instead of wishing it was over, instead of grumbling, realize that that suffering on behalf of another is holy. It is changing you from the inside out, making you mroe like Christ. It is changing you from a lonely seed into a fruitful tree.