What’s your center?

A sermon for Epiphany 2

Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42, Psalm 40:1-12

I love gifts, especially unexpected gifts from unexpected places. I received on last night. I joined our Friday Families group for pizza as we watched Rise of the Guardians a clever tale weaving many children’s characters together into one story. It is cute, with Hugh Jackman, think Wolverine, doing Bunny’s voice, it has to be; and as with many of these movies within the story are many great lessons. 

My gift is a conversation between Jack and North. North is trying to explain to Jack about his center. He hands Jack a Matryoshka Doll, one of the Russian stackable dolls, painted like North. He says: This is how you see me, very big and intimidating. Jack opens the dolls and seeing the next one says: You are downright jolly, and the next layer: and serious, then the next: and fearless, and the last: There’s a tiny wooden baby. North replies: Look closer. What do you see? You have big eyes. Yes! Big eyes, very big, because they are full of wonder. That is my center. It is what I was born with, eyes that have only seen the wonder in everything! Eyes that see lights in the trees and magic in the air. This wonder is what I put into the world, and what I protect in children. It is what makes me a guardian. It is my center, what is yours?  Jack: I don’t know. i

The conversation is about identity, who are we, and how that identity shapes our lives. It’s the same conversation that’s the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy, that John is having with his followers, and Paul is writing to the Corinthians.

Whoever Isaiah’s servant is: himself, another prophet, Israel, or the expected messiah, Christians believe to be Jesus, he is tired. He has given it his best, but things have not worked out, and while knowing, or at least saying his reward is with God he is done. Scott Hoezee notes everyone gets discouraged, weary.
What I suspect is in the weariness the servant’s center shifts, their identity changes, it moves from being of God and about God, to being me and about me.
God’s reply

It’s not enough for you to restore  Israel. Now I want you go to all
nations and share the story of my salvation till it reaches the ends of the earth.

at first it appears harsh and uncaring. However, it’s effect is to re-center the servant it’s reminder that from time in the womb till now, till the end of time, the servant is of God, is in unbreakable relationship with God.

What is it six centuries and a decade later? John is walking through town with a couple of his followerswhen he points to Jesus and shouts:

There is the Lamb of God
who takes away the sins of world!

The next day he sees Jesus again, and shouts out:

Look! here is the Lamb of God!

We all know what Lamb of God means. Or do we? Scott Hoezee ii and Richard Swanson iii point out that lamb of God, and takes away the sin of the world  are both far more complex than you’d think. To begin with the phrase lamb of God appears only here, there are other references to Jesus as lamb, but this exact phrase is used only here. iv If Jesus is a Passover lamb, there are image difficulties arising from the rabbinical understanding of God joining us in the meal, and eating his lamb so you the trouble. If Jesus is a sacrificial lamb, well lambs sacrificed for atonement, which is taking away sin, are female, and while male goats are included, male lambs are left out!  v Additionally, lambs are typically a symbol of gentleness, meekness, and vulnerability not exactly a model for a messiah. There is also the story of  the sacrifice of Isaac, when God provide the lamb, but there are still translation difficulties. vi

So what about the phrase: who takes away the sins of the world. How? Take away  is rooted in the Greek lift up,which may imply lifting up, or pointing out sins so everyone can see them, not to embarrass, but to encourage repentance. Or it may refer to the firey serpent story in Numbers vii when the bronze snake is lifted up so those snake-bit can be healed. Or perhaps it’s a reference to being lifted up during crucifixion.

All this being said, knowing the Lamb (sheep, sacrifice) of God, takes away (lifts up) the sin of the world, reveals an image of God providing for the healing, which means restoring to wholeness,and wholeness is relationship with God, providing for the healing for God’s people. In short, John is telling his followers, anyone who will hear, here is your identity, the divine Jesus is your center.

We read the greeting and introduction from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this morning. Because we’ve read it before, we know there are troubles. Corinth is a bit self-impressed viii which is understandable. It is an urban trade center of about 250,000 people,served by 400,000 slaves. There are 2 harbors making it a commercial hub of the Roman Empire. The many peoples from many nations have established 12 major temples. Stan Mast writes: What happened in Corinth doesn’t stay in Corinth. ix It’s easy to see how such self-importance creeps into the life of the church.

It’s revealing to note Paul does not give thanks for them, he gives to God for the spiritual gifts entrusted to them through Christ. He is alluding to deep divisions among them, to the truth that even though they are spiritually gifted, they are immature and unspiritual. In today’s parlance, they’ve lost their center. They have forgotten God … has called them into communion with one another and with Christ. x   N. T. Wright notes

Paul is reminding them they are summoned to be saints and worshippers, [that] they belong to a koininia partnership with God and Jesus [whose]
     purpose  is a servant vocation [that] model[s] and implement[s] genuine new humanity. xi

Paul is saying it’s not about them, or their gifts, it’s about Jesus, it’s about God. He is pointing out their true center, their true identity as sanctified, or set aside, by God, for God, through Christ.

All three lessons call their audience, then and now back to  a life an identity centered in God through Christ. All are directly applicable to us. From Isaiah, we are tired, weary, given it our best, but the world, and declining everything conspires against us. We’ll hold on, but we are done. Such thinking reveal that our center has shifted to our survival. And when we are centered on our  survival we will miss the opportunity to proclaim the Kingdom of God is here. And that opportunity is here!

There is a similar lesson from John; we can get so caught up in our definitions of what scripture says we miss the point of scripture – our relationship with God. John is pointing to Jesus as the one who heals, restores to wholeness our relationship with God, who is, with God, the center of our being.

And Paul points out the dangers of self-importance born of success. It’s interesting that the same risk is in struggling churches who afraid they cannot survive. In such fear, we double down on meeting our needs or on building up our skills which are as powerless as we are afraid they are. Either way our center shifts.

Epiphany is the season of light, a time to seek divine illumination. I wonder if we are looking so hard for the light, for who Jesus is, we forget who we are. And we are already: illumined by Word and Sacrament, we are already children, heirs of God through creation, and through Jesus’ redemptive ministry. Perhaps it’s time to simply live in that relationship xii and allow it to become what it already is our center, our identity, our essence.

The Kingdom in the mundane

I am finding myself spending more time moving into the New Year than I had anticipated; hence the absence of postings. There has been some change in setting, but those changes are not the trouble; the troubles are in the usual and customary events of moving into the New Year. Many of them are perfunctory, calendars, files – both paper and computer, and the like.  As the week began all this felt at odds with the purpose of priest; now, not so much. All this work will support the month to month, week to week, day to day functions, which underlay my relationship with the church, the community and God. It’s becoming a task of mundane and righteousness.

This week’s Gospel story of Jesus’ baptism by John is the root of the emerging understanding. John has been proclaiming the presence of the Kingdom of God and baptizing folks in the river Jordan for a while. He may be the most gregarious, but is not the only practitioner of a Jewish rite of Baptism that is related to purity. Jesus, whom John knows to be of the Kingdom of God, appears to John to be baptized by him. John does not understand why; he does not want to baptize Jesus; in fact, he believes he should be baptized by Jesus. Jesus relies: Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.

English usage of ‘righteousness’ implies adherence to established norms, following the rules. Biblical writers are seeking to show “the fulfillment of the terms of a covenant between God and humanity.” which is all about relationship with God. [i]  Matthew refers to Joseph as righteous, because he seeks to follow the law, and because his relationship with God leads him to contrary actions, i.e. marriage to Mary, contrary to law and custom.

Both Jesus and John display righteousness. Jesus from the start reveals his relationship to God, his purpose is to reveal the Kingdom of God. John, in humble submission to Jesus is righteous, he humbly submits to the presence of the Kingdom expressed in Jesus reason for seeking baptism. [ii]

John’s Baptism while not perfunctory is not unusual. Jesus is following a usual and customary form of expressing obedience relationship with God. And therein lies my learning, all things, perfunctory or singularly unusual, should be some expression of expressing our relationship to God and to God’s people. Yes, it brings a greater purpose to the mundane acts of getting ready for a new year, more importantly it (hopefully) will cause me to think about how what I am doing expresses the presence of the Kingdom.

 


[i] Holman Bible Dictionary

[ii] New Interpreters’ Study Bible, New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary