Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cut to the Heart

The new covenant is not cut in stone, but on the heart -- of God! A sermon for Lent5b.

SJF • Lent 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord said, This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

Throughout this Lent we have been exploring the concept of covenant. Week by week we have looked at a number of covenants that God made with the earth or with his people. We began with the rainbow covenant from the days of Noah, and then took account of the covenant God made with Abraham, sealed with Abraham’s own blood and in his flesh, and in that of his descendants forever. Then we heard an account of the giving of that covenant at Sinai — the covenant which our Scripture today notes that the people broke. And last week we looked at the healing covenant of the bronze serpent, the one that Moses made at God’s direction to heal the people of their snake-bites — and of how Jesus applied this to himself as a sign of his own New Covenant in his flesh and blood, his saving passion and death. The common element we saw in all of these covenants was their two-part nature as both agreement and sign of the agreement.

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Today, as I noted, we step back to that covenant cut in stone — the one given at Mount Sinai, the one that the people broke. The prophet Jeremiah promises that the ever-faithful God will provide the people with an unbreakable covenant. And the crucial difference about this covenant is that it will not take the form of something external and general, but something internal and personal. God will not write this covenant in the sky, as in the days of Noah; nor in the mere external flesh of his people’s men-folk, as in the covenant with Abraham; nor on tablets of stone, as he did in the days of Moses; nor in a token or a totem to ward off the pain of snake-bite, as also in the course of the people’s journey under Moses. No — God will write a new covenant on none of these, but on each and human heart.

The new covenant will be immediate in the strictest sense of that word — direct, with nothing intervening or coming in the way between God and the believer. No intermediary or messenger or teacher will be required to transmit or announce or instruct about this covenant. It will cut straight to the heart.

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Now, it is abundantly clear from the rest of the book of the prophet Jeremiah — and from the records both in Scripture and in secular history — that this miraculous intervention by God into the hearts of the people of Israel did not happen in Jeremiah’s time. The people remained as stubborn, willful and sinful through the time of Jeremiah as they had been in the days of Moses, the judges, the kings and the other prophets; and they would remain just as bad on through the captivity, and the return from Babylon, and the building of the Second Temple. They still turned to idolatry and sinfulness; and even when they turned to the law, it was to that law of Moses and the priestly law of sacrifice and burnt offering, the mechanical and external worship of God.

There were no doubt in Israel those for whom the love of God went beneath the skin, whose hearts were touched by God. There were righteous as well as wicked folks in and before Jeremiah’s time, and in the captivity and beyond. But all that righteousness or wickedness was still measured by compliance or non-compliance with that old law carved in stone.

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Yet Jeremiah had announced, “The days are surely coming” — that’s a prophet’s way of saying, “I cannot tell you when, but some day something wonderful is going to happen: God will act, and the world will be changed.”

And so it was in the days of the Second Temple, during the Roman Occupation of the land, word began to spread about a man who was more than a man. Word spread even far enough for Greeks to hear of him — Greeks who had adopted, or at least admired from afar, the Law of Moses, and came to worship in Jerusalem. And they came to Philip — one of the disciples who happened to have a Greek name! — asking to see the man they’d heard about, this man called Jesus.

The request gets passed along and finally comes to Jesus who responds, in John’s account, with one of those speeches with which John’s gospel is sprinkled— almost a sermon in itself. Perhaps it is the realization that the accomplishment of his great work — to be a light to all the world — is finally in the process of fulfillment. After all, Greeks are coming to him, literally for goodness’ sake!

And so he launches into that rhapsody on his coming sacrifice and its universal effect. It will be like a single grain of wheat that perishes but becomes a fruitful harvest. For a moment his soul is troubled by the implications of this perishing — of dying in order to bear fruit. It is also very close now — his houris approaching, the hour when the New Covenant will be well and truly cut — in his own flesh and blood upon the cross.

And in response to the trouble on his heart, God speaks in a thundering voice — no, not for his sake, but for the sake of all who heard it.

And suddenly, immediately, it is no longer the prophet’s vague promise, “The days are surely coming...” but rather it is now God’s Son’s own “Now!” “Now is the judgment of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be driven out! And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

It is as if the heart of God himself has been laid bare, and written upon it is the promise and its fulfillment. The New Covenant is now, Christ seems to say, the hour of completion and realization, the time in which the sharp sword of God’s own Spirit will cut to the heart of every human being, drawn to the foot of the cross upon which the Son of God is lifted up — no bronze serpent he, but the Son of God in flesh and blood, revealed in his Paschal suffering, losing his life, perishing, that he may take it up again, and us with it — a plentiful harvest — all of us marked on our foreheads with his cross and on our hearts with his love.

Let us thank God has called us to the foot of that cross, has marked us with that sign, has written his covenant upon our hearts. In Christ we die, like grain once scattered on a hillside, and in him we also rise, and bearing fruit unto eternal life will rejoice with him for ever.+


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hair of the Dog

The Atonement required something of the very thing that caused the problem in the first place... flesh and blood. A sermon for Lent 4b.

SJF • Lent 4b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Anyone who comes from a culture in which the consumption of alcohol is a common feature will know that in addition to every culture’s favorite strong alcoholic beverage — whether rum or whiskey, bourbon or brandy — each culture also has its own favorite hangover cure. For it follows as the night the day — or more likely the day following the night!— that consumption of too much of any alcoholic beverage will have a definite impact on how you feel the next morning.

Some years ago, there was even a TV show called “Three Sheets” that formed the alcoholic equivalent to National Geographic. A man traveled the world sampling the strongest liquor in every country and getting royally — or democratically — drunk, depending on the country, and then the following morning seeking out each nation’s favorite hangover cure. The first episode of the series began with a search for Belize’s elusive cashew wine, high-power Viper Rum (made with real viper pickled in the bottle) and readily available Belikin Beer; and it ended with a dose of Michelada the morning after. Some of you may be familiar with these very products!

One of the things about many of the hangover cures is that they often include a certain amount of alcohol — including Michelada, which is part beer. The old saying is that you need “a hair of the dog that bit you” if you are to rid yourself of the hangover. And you are probably wondering about now what I may have been up to last night that brings forth this reflection on alcohol and its after-effects; but I assure you last night was not spent in a binge and I did not require a hair or any other part of a dog this morning in my coffee! Even being a quarter Irish I know how to behave on St. Patrick’s Day.

No, I raise this matter of the hair of the dog because of that curious incident from the book of Numbers that we heard this morning. God has Moses create a bronze serpent as a treatment for those suffering from the burning pain of snakebite. This is the same God who on Sinai had ordered Moses not to make any likeness of anything on the earth or under the earth or in the heavens — and yet here God commands Moses to make a bronze serpent; and not only to make it, but to display it before the people as a way to bring them healing from their snake-bites. Now, This is hardly modern medicine, hardly even medicine at all; and it comes from a time and a culture when such almost magical treatments for disease or injury were common. And a major feature of these cures is that they include something similar to, or derived from, the cause of the disease itself. Why, even today you can go to the drugstore and buy what they call “homeopathic medications” many of which contain small amounts of the thing that made you sick in the first place.

Now, this incident might have remained just one of those curious passages from the Hebrew Scriptures explained in a footnote but then quickly passed by if it weren’t for the fact that Jesus not only refers to this incident and applies it to himself — and not just to himself but specifically to his manner of death for our sake and for our salvation. He interprets this ancient incident as a sign: a sign of healing, not just for the snake-bitten few, but for the whole world, enslaved by sin. Originally this sign was just to heal a few people wounded by snakes for their transgressions. But its fulfillment — in Christ on the cross — where he is lifted up — is as a sign of healing for the whole world; for, as the text continues in that biblical quote so famous that it is even held up on signs at football matches — God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him, displayed and lifted up upon the cross. It is not only saving from the pain of snake-bite, but deliverance from the death pangs due to all who have fallen under the sway of the great serpent who connived the fall of our ancient parents in the garden.

This is where the theme of a covenant comes in, the theme we’ve been exploring these four Sundays in Lent. We started with God’s covenant with the earth sealed in the sign of the rainbow, through the covenant with Abraham sealed in the blood of his flesh, through the Old Covenant chiseled on tablets of stone, we come now specifically to the New Covenant of Christ’s blood shed on the cross, not to condemn the world, but in order that Christ might be lifted up and call the whole world to himself, bringing healing to all who turn to him in faith.

There is an unforgettable line in Saint Julian of Norwich’s reflections on the crucified Christ. From the cross he displays his wounds, and says, “See how I loved you.” It is in his own wounded flesh that healing and salvation lies — in his flesh and in his blood.

And that is the hair of the dog that bit us — for it is in our own flesh and blood that we fell into sin; and it is in our own flesh and blood that we turned from God. In the person of our ancient ancestors Adam and Eve we rejected all that God had planned and intended for us, thinking we could do better on our own. And we have continued to sin, in our own flesh-and-blood, in the wrongs we do towards God and to one another. I would love to say that the church is immune from such ailments, but we need not look very far to see the evidence to the contrary. Our sins cry out like the blood of Abel from the ground. I find myself crying out with Saint Paul, “Who will deliver me from this body of death!”

And the answer Paul found is the answer that rings true still: Only the flesh and blood of one who was truly human — but was also truly God incarnate — could atone for, could heal, the breach and division caused by that ancient wrong, and all our wrongs done since. This is not, as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, our own doing — it is the doing of one who is like us in every way, except only sin. But who is also God. For God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ, when he raised him from the dead. He was wounded for our transgressions, and by his stripes we are healed.

This is the covenant of the atonement — the drawing together of humanity at the foot of the cross to look upon the one whom we have pierced, through our own sins. This is the covenant of grace, of God’s promised forgiveness, healing the wounds that Satan gave us, and the wounds we give each other, by means of his own Son’s giving of himself. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Let us rejoice that God has provided us with the means of our healing and salvation, in Jesus Christ. Let us turn to him, repenting all our failings and our wrongs, toward him who is alone our Savior and our Lord.+


The Big Ten

God's covenant at Sinai: faith, not religion. A sermon for Lent 3b.

SJF • Lent 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG,
God spoke all these words to Moses on Mount Sinai.

This Lent we have been exploring the meaning of the word covenant — in particular by looking at the various covenants that God made with humanity or with the chosen people of Israel. On the first Sunday in Lent we reviewed the covenant God made after the flood, which he signed and sealed with his own name in the rainbow set in the clouds. Last week we looked at God’s covenant with Abraham, the covenant sealed in Abraham’s flesh and that of all of his descendants. And we saw from these two examples, the two sides to every covenant: an agreement and a sign of the agreement.

Today we come to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God, the mountain upon which God writes up the terms of his covenant with Israel on tablets of stone, and delivers them to the people with whom he wishes to enter into this covenant, this agreement — he is their God and he has high expectations of them: including right from the beginning the insistence that this is an “exclusive contract.” The people are to have nothing to do with any other god or object of worship — nothing on earth or under the earth or in the heavens is to become the object of their adoration, but only God — who openly admits that he is jealous.

Jealous as well as faithful — that is important to remember; God does not want the people to worship only him because he needs their worship but because he knows that it is good for them to worship one who will be faithful to them and rescue them when they turn out to be less than faithful themselves. As we know from the rest of the story in Exodus the ink was hardly dry — or I should say rather that the chiseled tablets hardly finished — before the people down in the camp, down at the foot of the mountain, under Aaron’s leadership had made a golden calf and begun to worship it — a dead thing — instead of the living God. And indeed God in his jealousy would have wiped them out had not it been for Moses standing between them and God’s very righteous indignation.

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This covenant then, what we call the Ten Commandments, is an agreement to which God wishes to hold his chosen people — these are the conditions of the covenant, spelled out in no uncertain terms. It is a covenant that calls upon them to respect and honor God — but perhaps even more importantly, it calls upon them to respect and honor each other — not just even each other, but everyone — every human being is to be respected. Only the first three of these ten commandments directly involve God, the worship of God, and the sanctity of God’s holy Name. All of the rest of the Commandments — the other seven — in this covenant have to do with people and their dealings with each other. This starts with the commandment to observe the Sabbath — which is not really so much about God as about people. remember what Jesus said about the Sabbath, it was made of us, and not we for it. It is about people, people who aren’t supposed to be worked to death, but to have a day off each week — and this includes everybody, not just your family and your employees — but even the livestock and the aliens with whom you share the country.

As the list of the commandments goes on, you can see that this covenant lays out really much more about how to treat other people — with honor, but without violence, without infidelity, without theft, without slander, and finally, without even envy or greed. This is the covenant that God lays out before his people, and the first of the covenants with which we’ve dealt in which the sign and its contents are one and the same.

The rainbow was meant as a reminder to God not to flood the earth. Circumcision was a sign in the flesh to remind Abraham and his offspring that they were dedicated to God. But the Ten Commandments — those ten laws about how we are to behave toward God and toward out neighbor — those Ten Commandments simply mean what they say and are what the command — a covenant whose sign is also its contents.

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But as with much that God commands, the Ten Commandments are easy to understand — easy to recite as we did this morning at the beginning of our worship — but hard to keep. These moral rules were hard on people — they still are! — people find it all too easy to fall to dishonor or exploitation of others. People are easily prone to violence, betrayal, theft and envy and greed. The people wanted to shift the attention away from these requirements about how they should treat each other, towards something else, something perhaps less clear about how to treat other people, something more mechanical than moral. What they wanted was “religion.”

Now before anyone thinks I’ve gone off the deep end to speak anything ill about “religion” let me immediately clarify that I’m not talking about faith. There is, in practice, a huge difference between religion and faith. The Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels never mention the word religion even once; it does come up a few times in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle of James, but that’s it. What the Scriptures speak of, for the most part, is not religion, but faith. As the theologian Karl Barth has said, “Religion is...a human attempt to anticipate what God in his revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human manufacture. The divine reality offered and manifested to us in revelation is replaced by a concept of God... evolved by man.” (The Revelation of God.) In short, as I would say, religion can be a form of idolatry — putting something else in the place of God’s revealed will. God inspires faith, but humanity offers religion.

And so it was that turning away from the high moral demands of God, the priests of Aaron’s line developed the rules of sacrifice and offerings which eventually came to form the religion of the temple. This substituted law of sacrifice was more subtle than the substitution of the golden calf — it had all the appearances of honoring God. But as the prophets would later have to say, time and again, but perhaps most succinctly in that wonderful phrase, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” God wants faith, not religion.

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Following in this line of prophecy and bringing it to fulfillment, Jesus casts the money changers out of the temple. They symbolize the mechanical nature of the religion of sacrifice — you pays your money and you takes your choice — thinking that the blood of sheep and goats could wipe away sin. As if, as the Psalmist would say, God needs the blood of sheep and goats. “Are not all the beasts of the hillside mine,” says God. “Do I need you to kill all these animals for me? Do you think I eat meat?”

God wants us, God has always wanted us — God wants us, not just what we do mechanically, not even just what we do morally, but our whole selves devoted to him — serving only him and having no other God before him. And further, out of that devotion, God calls us to serve our sisters and brothers and treat them as we would be treated, with dignity and respect and honor.

Jesus does not just end the cult of sacrifice — he transforms it by himself becoming the ultimate and final sacrifice of God. He becomes the temple that not made with hands, and its most perfect offering. He is the temple, that if they destroy it, will rise in three days — not the 46 years it took to build that temple of stone, but the three days he lay in the tomb, and would then rise, restored, alive again. As Karl Barth also said: “Jesus does not give recipes that show us the way to God as teachers of religion do. Jesus is himself the way.”

At this midpoint of our Lenten journey with him, let us remember that God gave us rules for good conduct, toward both God and each other; but also that God gave us himself, in Christ Jesus our Lord. He gave himself to us and for us; let us give ourselves to him. +


Sunday, March 04, 2012

Cutting a Deal

The covenant sealed in flesh and blood: Abraham's, Christi's, and ours... a sermon for Lent 2b

SJF • Lent 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God said to Abraham, I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.

On this second Sunday in Lent we come to the second great Covenant of the Hebrew Scriptures. Last week we witnessed God’s first covenant — the promise that the he would never again wipe out the world by a flood, and it was sealed with the sign of God’s own name in the heavenly rainbow. I noted last week that a covenant has two parts: an agreement between the parties, and a sign of that agreement, noting that the covenant with Noah was more or less one-sided: God made a promise to Noah and put the rainbow in the sky as a sign of that promise.

In the covenant God made with Abraham, however, we see a covenant in its complete form. God promises Abraham that he will be a father of nations, and promises him the land in which he dwells as a perpetual heritage. And this time around, the covenant is to be signed by Abraham in his own flesh, and the flesh of all of his descendants forever. I’m tempted to say that this time the shoe is on the other foot, but this sign involves an entirely different portion of the anatomy, and the less said about that the better. In fact, the editors of the lectionary were so sensitive and perhaps even squeamish about this that they actually left out all of the verses referring to circumcision, to Abraham’s side of the deal. But I have chosen to include them, however, because I think it is important to see that this covenant has a sign in addition to a promise — and the sign this time was a sign in flesh and blood; literally cutting a deal — which is the way the Hebrew authors consistently refer to making a covenant: a covenant is something you cut — and a cut almost always bleeds.

It is important, however, that we note that more flesh and blood is talked about here than merely that directly connected with sign of circumcision. Remember that the promise that God makes is that Abraham and Sarah, as old and barren as they are, and who are given new names as part of this covenant arrangement, will have flesh and blood descendants, starting with the son promised to Sarah. This couple, childless until their very old age (although Abram had fathered a child through Hagar, Sarai’s servant), would soon have a son of their own, Isaac, through whom the covenant blessing would continue, a sign of the promise revealed in flesh and blood.

There is a great promise here, a promise from God, but it costs Abraham something — it costs him and his descendants forever some pain and some blood, as a sign of the covenant which is to be marked in their flesh forever. It is a covenant that requires some personal sacrifice.

And so it would also be with the covenant that God establishes with us in Christ Jesus. In the Gospel passage today Jesus tries to explain to his disciples just how costly salvation will be — costly to him, as he endures suffering, rejection and death, before he comes to the resurrection in that crowning glory. Peter tries to rebuke him — this is too much for him, too much of a sacrifice, even though it is not he who is making it — but Jesus insists in no uncertain terms that there is a cost to this new covenant, this New Testament in his blood. The cost that he will pay is his life, and he tells Peter and the other disciples that this is the cost to them as well. If they wish to save their lives they must lose their lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel. They must deny themselves, their very selves — who and what they are in every sense of the word — and take up their own cross and follow him.

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As you know, every time I baptize a child here at this font I also mark them on the forehead with oil blessed by the bishop, saying, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” As the hymn we just sang says, “Each newborn servant of the Crucified bears on the brow the seal of him who died.” The early church regarded this anointing with oil and baptism with water as our Christian version of circumcision — an unbloody circumcision marked not in the flesh but by the Holy Spirit. And so it is that even the youngest infant, baptized into this new life, takes up his or her cross to begin to follow Jesus, even before they can walk, as a sign of their own baptismal covenant.

This should not seem so strange to us who worship as our Lord one who first came among us as an infant in a manger. Just as a child was promised to Abraham and Sarah, a child was promised to us, a son given to us, who lived as one of us and died as one of us, but then rose victorious from the grave; and it is through him that we also share the promise of that rising from the dead. Abraham signed this covenant with his own blood; and God signed this new covenant, this new baptismal covenant through Jesus Christ — God signed this covenant in his own blood, the blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

We bear the mark of his suffering — his cross — on our foreheads, perhaps invisible as it is marked with holy oil, but it does show up when we are signed with ashes at the beginning of Lent — the minister acting almost like a detective dusting with ashes that reveal God’s fingerprints upon us — each and every one. It is a sign of the covenant we have with God, and God with us, the sign of the cross. That sign is always there, even if you cannot see it, the sign of God’s covenant with you, and you with God, in Christ Jesus our Lord — it is the sign of the saving cross, marked on your own body. Remember it, take it up every day; remember him, and follow him, who is our Lord and our God, who suffered for our salvation and rose from the dead that we might have new life in him. To him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.