Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sermon: 18 Pentecost (4 October 2009)

Sermon: 18 Pentecost (4 October 2009)
(Job 1:1; 2:1-10/Psalm 8/Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12/Mark 10:2-16)
Absolutely, Unapologetically Christocentric

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Downsizing can be difficult, especially if it is not voluntary. A middle-aged man loses a prestigious and lucrative position as a corporate CEO in the latest economic downturn and now finds himself a teacher at a local high school – and frankly considers himself lucky to find that, or any, job. “If I’d known this was going to happen, I’d have advocated for higher teacher pay years ago,” is about all he can say about his plight. Despite the gallows humor, you know his life has changed radically. No more expense account power-lunches at fine restaurants: just scarf down a brown bag lunch or some cafeteria food in the thirty minutes between classes or meetings. No more Lexus or BMW: a Honda will have to do. Smaller salary, smaller house, smaller circle of friends: everything seems diminished in the transition. Given the choice, he’d return to his former position in a heartbeat.

But, if he just hangs in there a bit, he may find that what he initially perceives as loss, is really gain. Forget power-lunches; now he knows the Lunch Ladies – that’s where the real power in the school lies, and there is no better group of people anywhere. Forget the Lexus or BMW: there are plenty of those at school anyway – all in the student parking lot. The Honda’s reliable and fuel-efficient and takes him everywhere the Lexus ever did. Smaller salary sure, but more time with his wife and grandkids. Smaller house yes, but less yard work and lower mortgage. Smaller circle of friends? No, just different friends and hundreds of kids whose lives he has the chance to change for the better. How is any of this a come-down? By any sane comparison he’s improved his life immeasurably.

But he is not sane just yet; sanity takes time. The key is to get the man to hang in there long enough to realize what he’s found: leave too early and he misses all the benefits.

Change the details of the story just a bit, and, in broad strokes, you have the situation of Jewish Christians in the first century. They had “downsized” their ancient and honored faith – the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the faith of Moses – for the faith of a cult, a small offshoot of messianic Judaism centered on an executed criminal. Granted, they believed this Jesus who died was raised on the third day and thereby shown by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be both Lord and Messiah. But, they were in a very small minority of Jews who saw things that way. And the tolerance level toward this new faith was not very high. From the beginning the orthodox Jews – scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees – were suspicious of Jesus and hostile toward his growing movement. After his death the hostilities increased and followers of the Way were pursued from one town to another – think Saul, here – arrested, and brought in chains to Jerusalem for trial. The Romans, also, soon determined that this new faith was a destabilizing influence on the empire – it had strange notions about wealth, public service, master-slave relations, war, emperor worship, and a host of other cultural givens – and so Rome sporadically set about to purge it from the cultural landscape.

Once a new Jewish Christian got over the excitement of embracing this radical new faith, he might just begin to take a hard look at the balance sheet – what was lost and what was gained. And, frankly, the losses added up quickly: loss of cultural and religious identity – the holy days, the feasts and fasts, the Sabbath, the temple worship and the priesthood, the Torah; loss of status – even in Roman occupied Jerusalem the Jews exercised significant autonomy and were accorded a certain status as an ancient people with an historic faith; loss of family and friends – followers of Jesus often were considered blasphemers; and on it goes, the balance sheet bleeding red ink. The pressures to reconnect with Judaism – to say, “This Jesus thing was just a phase I was going through and now I’m back in the fold.” – must have been enormous.

Just as with our downsized CEO, the key was to get these Jewish Christians to hold on, to hang in there long enough to realize that every perceived loss was overwhelmingly offset by a corresponding gain. Leave too early and you miss all the real and substantial benefits of the faith.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written to encourage these Jewish Christians to hold on. It is, in many ways, a spiritual ledger book – debits and credits, losses and gains – intended to show Judaism as a mere shadow of the reality that is the Christian faith, a foretaste of the glory of God in the face of Christ. Its focus is absolutely and unapologetically Christocentric: nothing is full apart from Christ and everything reaches its fulfillment only in Christ. The prologue sets the theme for the entire letter.

1 God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; 3 who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they (Heb 1:1-4).[1]

As a Jew, Paul says – and the attribution of Hebrews to Paul, while traditional, is far from certain – as a Jew, Paul says, you had the prophets and their words to our fathers. But, as a Christian, you have the Son, the heir of all things, the Word himself through whom all things were made – things in heaven and things on earth, all that is, seen and unseen. As a Jew, you had Moses, the greatest of the prophets, who was allowed to catch only a glimpse of the back of God’s glory (cf Ex 33). But, as a Christian, you have Jesus, the full brightness of God’s glory and the icon – the character and image – of God. As a Jew, you had the angels – for the Jews believed that God spoke to man through the angels (e.g. Abraham and the three visitors) and that God delivered the Law to Moses through the mediation of angels. But, as a Christian, you have the One who sits at the right hand of God on high, not a servant as the angels are, but a Son and heir, with a name far above that of any angel. As a Jew, you had the shadow, the foretaste of the glory to come. As a Christian, you have the reality, the fullness of the glory of God in the face of Christ. Nothing is full apart from Christ, and everything reaches its fulfillment only in Christ. So, hold on. Look again at the ledger. There are no losses in Christ: only great and eternal gains.

We are not Jewish Christians; we are not tempted to return to what we never knew. But, in our culture we are continually enticed away from Jesus Christ. We are in a culture – or more precisely, in a multi-culture – that values Jesus, if at all, as only one option among many on the religious/spiritual menu – neither better nor worse nor really different in kind than the gods of the new age or the gods of the ancient religions. Choose wicca; choose Hinduism; choose Buddhism; choose paganism; choose atheism; choose Darwinism; choose any or all of the above; or choose Jesus: it’s all the same in the end and we must honor each one’s choice as equally valid. Country music artist Reba McIntyre recently labeled herself a Buddhist Christian because she believes in reincarnation; it seems to matter not at all to her or to many others that Buddhism and Christianity are so fundamentally different as to be mutually exclusive. There is a real question that begs asking to twenty-first-century secular Christians – a question not unlike that which Paul poses to the first-century Jewish Christians: If Christianity is true, as understood by the Orthodox faithful for two millennia, what would entice you away from it, or what would entice you to blend it with any other philosophy or religion? If Christianity is true, then it is the fulfillment of all that has gone before; it is the reality to which the shadows point. Why return to the partial? Why prefer the shadows?

As Christians, we accept and honor all that is true and good in other faiths or in other philosophies. Judaism and Islam are correct: there is but one God who alone is worthy of worship. But, Judaism and Islam are partial, and thus incorrect, in their understanding of that one God whom we know and we worship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Buddhism is correct in its emphasis on wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental development. But Buddhism is partial, and thus incorrect, in teaching that wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental development are possible apart from Jesus and his redemptive work of salvation. Science is correct – as far as that word has meaning in science – in many of its assertions about the operation of the physical universe. But science is partial, and thus incorrect, in asserting that God is a hypothesis of which there is no need (a lá Pierre-Simone Laplace), that all is merely matter and energy, cause and affect. Why be content with any partial truth when the fullness of all truth is ours in Christ Jesus?

On this matter Paul spoke well to the stoics and epicureans in Athens and we should listen well to his words.

22 Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one blood
every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:22-31).

Paul is absolutely and unapologetically Christocentric: nothing is full apart from Christ and everything reaches its fulfillment only in Christ.

That was not obvious to most first-century Jews, and apparently not even to some first-century Jewish Christians. Wasn’t Jesus a man like us? Wasn’t he rejected by his own people? Wasn’t he executed by the imperial powers? How then can you say that he was superior to the angels? How then can you say that he is the heir of all things or the brightness of the glory of God or the perfect image of his person? How then can you say he is the fulfillment of all things when he was subjected to all the humiliations of humanity, and ultimately subjected to death on a cross? Because, Paul answers, neither Jesus’ humble station nor his humiliating death was the end of the story. For now,

9 [But] we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.
10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings (Heb 2:9-10).

In his resurrection and ascension to glory at the right hand of the Father we see Jesus in his fullness. And all this – the self-emptying of the incarnation, the humility of ministry, the humiliation of death, the power of resurrection, the glory of ascension – all this was aimed toward a single, grand purpose: to bring many sons to glory – to fill our partial lives with the fullness of God, thereby making us brothers and sisters of Christ and children of God our Father. And that is the great gain of our faith. That is the bottom line of the ledger sheet that erases all loses, cancels all debts, and makes us rich beyond compare – men and women as joint heirs with Jesus Christ of all that is the Father’s. That is why Paul exhorts the Jewish Christians to hold on, to hold fast to the Gospel despite all enticements of their former faith. That is why we hold on, hold fast to Jesus Christ in a world that entices us to see him as but one option among many. That is why we are absolutely and unapologetically Christocentric: nothing is full apart from Christ and everything reaches its fulfillment only in Christ. For only in Christ may we become the sons and daughters of God, to whom be glory in the church, now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

No comments: