Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sermon: 2 Epiphany (20 January 2008)

2 Epiphany: 20 January 2008
(Isaiah 49:1-7/Psalm 40:1-11/1 Corinthians 1:1-9/John 1:29-42)
Experience Versus Hope

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Be warned: I plan to speak of politics – just briefly and on the way to theology. I won’t linger any longer than necessary. I won’t bash liberals or question conservatives. I won’t endorse a candidate or a party. But I will walk that tightrope between life in the kingdom of God and life in the kingdoms of this world because that’s where we all live – of one and in the other, but somehow affected by and affecting both.

This is an historic primary, particularly in the Democratic Party. Of the three leading candidates one is an affluent, white, male – no real surprise there. But the other two – that’s where it gets interesting: Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama. While there have been female and black presidential candidates before, Clinton’s and Obama’s poll numbers indicate truly viable candidacies with large constituencies and significant monetary support, and that is new. One of these candidates could well be the next President of the United States, marking an historic first for our nation.

Each candidate is intelligent and articulate. Each is motivated and capable. Each is concerned that our country is in serious trouble and is headed in the wrong direction on such issues as the economy, health care, immigration, foreign policy, and national security. So far, the candidates agree. They disagree, though, on how to resolve these issues and particularly on what trait or skill each brings to the table as of first importance. For Clinton, experience is the key; she touts her thirty-five plus years of political experience in the Arkansas governor’s mansion, in the White House, and in the Senate. Obama begs to differ; experience is not the answer, but part of the problem, he seems to contend. Experience produced the present situations and promotes the status quo. What does he offer instead? The Audacity of Hope, as the title of his autobiography proclaims. There’s this from a recent New Hampshire speech: “Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside of us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that there is something greater inside of us.”[1]

So, these two leading candidates ask the Democratic voters to choose between experience and hope. A Woody Allen quote from Annie Hall comes to mind: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

So where do you stand on this experience versus hope debate? I’m not asking you to choose between Clinton and Obama. I’m asking whether your experience has caused you to be hopeful about the human condition, about human nature. If you haven’t really thought much about it or don’t know where you stand, maybe this short questionnaire will help. Based on your experience:

1. Do you expect fast food restaurants to fill your order quickly, correctly, courteously, and at the correct price, or are you surprised when all this happens at once?

2. Students, are you surprised when your classmates cheat on tests, gossip about their “friends,” and speak badly of teachers, or do you expect these kinds of things?

3. Do you expect salespeople and advertisers to tell the truth about their products, or do you expect hype and exaggeration?
4. Children, how surprised were you when adults bought huge blocks of Hannah Montana concert tickets and then scalped them for outrageous prices, or when a girl lied about her dead father to win tickets? If you were surprised this time, would you be surprised next time?

5. Do you trust the cigarette and drug companies? Do you trust our legal system?

6. Are you surprised and scandalized when our politicians are found being less than honest with the public, or do you expect to be misled – at least on occasion – by our elected officials?

7. The television character House says, “Everybody lies.” How accurate do you think this is?

8. When George Bush announced recently that he honestly felt there would be peace in the Middle East within the year – complete with a Palestinian homeland and a secure Israel – did you laugh?

9. Are you confident in the assurances of North Korea and Iran that they are pursuing nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes, or do the nuclear ambitions of these countries worry you?

10. Do you believe our world – its economy, environment, security, equity, justice, peace – is progressively getting better?

11. Do you believe our world is safer now for the next generation than it has ever been?

12. Do you believe the next generation will be more peaceful, prosperous, and content than our present generation?

These questions span the spectrum from trivial to significant. So, what does your experience tell you? How hopeful are you about the human condition, about human nature? Of course, we could make this personal. Are you honest enough and brave enough to look deeply within yourself? If so, what does your experience of your own heart and soul tell you about the human condition? Does your experience of self make you hopeful?

The Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, Modernity – the 17th through the early 20th centuries: these were hopeful times and they made hopeful promises – that man could cast off the shackles of superstition, the bondage of tyrants, and the limitations of ignorance and rise to greatness through reason, democracy, and knowledge. We’ve now entered Post-Modernity and the rejection of these hopeful, unfulfilled promises. Our experience with two world wars, the holocaust, the atomic bomb: these served to dash those hopes.

The discussion of politics, the brief self-examination, and the small bit of history lead us now to theology. Where does our faith call us to stand in this experience versus hope debate? When it comes to the human condition – human nature – is our faith experience one of hope?

Well, if we want to discuss human nature we must return to the Garden and to man – male and female – created in the image of God; that’s human nature. If ever a story began in hope this is it: man as the image bearer of God in communion with all creation, with one another, and with the Creator. (In some inarticulated sense this is the hope that politicians hold out to us: creation put to rights – an environment free from global warming, pollution, shortages – peace, goodwill, and prosperity for all, and the right to worship – to commune with our Creator – or even not to worship, as we see fit.) But the story goes badly wrong, and that right quickly. Man sins – male and female – opening the door for Sin and Death to come rushing into God’s good creation. And that they did.

Sin came into the world through the one man, Adam, and death came through sin. Death spread to all men, because all men sin – some without knowledge of God’s Law as revealed to Moses, and some with that knowledge. So death exercises dominion over man, indeed over all creation (cf Rom 5:12-14).

Sin and death took an enormous toll. One generation into the story and we have murder. Within a few generations of that, man’s heart is so darkened, twisted, and curved inward that it contemplates only evil continually. God is grieved that he ever made man and set him free upon the face of the earth. When it comes to the human condition, is God hopeful? What does the experience of the story tell us?

So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’ (Gen 6:6, NRSV).

The human experience was one of hopelessness before God; the human condition was beyond reclamation; human nature was beyond redemption. So, with apologies to those with the audacity to hope in the inherent goodness of human nature, God’s story tells us differently. Left to his own, man spirals quickly downward; he does not progress toward some grand utopia of his own making. There is no more accurate or depressing assessment of man on his own than that found in Romans 1:

for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

26For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters,
insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them (Rom 1:21-32, NRSV).

The refrain in this passage is “God gave them up.” This is not an expression of hope in the inherent goodness of man, but acknowledgment of the corrupting power of sin and death. There is a reason the Enlightenment promises failed and Modernity’s agenda failed to deliver: when left to solve his own problems, man almost invariably creates worse ones. And though we ignore them with claims of progress, choruses of self-esteem, and speeches filled with hope, sin and death will not be denied.

We don’t need more hope; we’ve had plenty of that through the years and look where it’s gotten us. We need more hopelessness. We need an accurate assessment of the human experience and a thorough examination of the depths of our sinfulness, the breadth of our corruption. We need to finally come face-to-face with ourselves and be disgusted with what we see. We need finally to abandon all hope. We need to reach the same point of helplessness that Paul did.

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death (Rom 7:18-24, NRSV)?

Only when true experience triumphs over false hope, only when we’ve recognized our helplessness in the face of the sin that dwells within us, only when we realize our wretchedness can we hear the gospel as good news.

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God’ (John 1:29-34, NRSV).

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – Jesus, the Son of God. And therein lies our only hope. Left to myself I cannot overcome the sin which lies close at hand, I cannot will myself to do that which I know I should do – even that which I want to do. No, a power stronger than my will lives within me, the power of sin and death. It wars against me and it overthrows me. The longer I deny my experience of failure and cling to some false hope of self-sufficiency the more enmeshed in sin I become, like some hapless soul thrashing around to free himself from quicksand and sinking all the more rapidly for his efforts. Only in hopelessness is there any hope. Only in surrender is there any victory. Only when with Paul we cry out with our last breath, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” can we hear the answer: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:25a, NRSV).

This Lamb of God to whom we cling as to our only hope, baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and breaks the power of sin and death that has enthralled us.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you (Rom 8:9-11, NRSV).

This Spirit of Christ within us empowers us to put to death the deeds of sin, if we abide in Christ, if we walk in the Spirit. We have not received a spirit of slavery, but a Spirit of adoption – adoption as the sons and daughters of God, adoption as joint heirs with Christ, adoption into the great hope which is now ours in Christ Jesus (cf Rom 8:14 ff) – the hope of glory.

My experience tells me that the human condition is hopeless, that we are enslaved by sin, terrified by death, in bondage to powers and principalities that offer false hope. My experience tells me that true hope lies not in ourselves, but in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, in Jesus Christ who baptizes us in the Spirit and makes of us a new creation. To him who is our hope be glory and honor and power and dominion now and forever. Amen.*

[1], accessed 1/14/08.

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