The Creative Call of Jesus

Advent 2017

December 6, 2017

Mark 2:1-22

“’Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” Mark 2:17

The Pharisees simply didn’t understand what Jesus was up to when he called rather despicable (read: unrighteous) people like Levi the tax collector to be his disciple, or when he ate and drank with deplorable “sinners and tax collectors”. In the Pharisees’ moral landscape, there were two types of people—the righteous and the unrighteous, the worthy and the unworthy, Law-keepers and Law-breakers. And in that moral landscape there wasn’t much of a path from unrighteousness to righteousness. What was it that the Pharisee Nicodemus said? “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” (John 3:4). In other words, it’s impossible, and radical even, to suggest that the unrighteous could change. They’re bad people, and by hanging around them, Jesus seems to be one of them. Why else does he “eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16). If Jesus were truly a teacher from God, then he would be hanging around the right(eous) sort.

Jesus’ moral landscape, in stark contrast to that of the Pharisees, makes change—or better yet, transformation—central to his mission as the Messiah. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” he tells Nicodemus (John 3:3). Unless a profound and radical change takes place, a person can’t so much as catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom. To the Pharisees he says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Jesus the Messiah is in the business of healing the sick, raising the dead, and turning lives around. It’s not only possible to change; it’s also necessary, and for Jesus, quite normal.

This change, however, does not come about through our moral efforts or through our decisions to try harder. We can’t will ourselves into righteousness. St. Augustine says as much: “To descend into sin, that free will, through which man corrupted himself, was sufficient, whereas to return to righteousness he needed a physician, since he was sick; he needed a giver of life, since he was dead.” Jesus came not to tell sinners to get their act together; he came not to tell the sick to get better or to tell the dead to raise themselves. Jesus came to save, to heal and to raise the dead. Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The word “call” is crucial. In the beginning God “called” into existence the things that were not. The world had no ability to exist until God spoke it into existence. We call this event “creation”. Similarly, Jesus calls sinners into righteousness; he calls the dead into life; he calls the sick into health. They had no ability to be righteous, alive or healthy until Jesus spoke it into existence. We call this event “new creation”, and it is the only way we’ll ever change. The application should be clear: if we want to change, to see transformation in our lives, the right approach isn’t a reinvigoration of our moral striving; it’s rather by hearing again the voice of Jesus calling us into righteousness. As the great hymn (381 in the Hymnal) has it: “Thy strong word bespeaks us righteous; bright with thine own holiness.”

How are you approaching the season of Advent? Are seeking above all to hear the creative call of Jesus?

Advertisements

The Costly Gift

meaningful-advent

December 23

Read Mark 12:35—13:13

“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all…For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44)

I learned as a little boy the difference between a casual gift and a costly gift. I was playing in the shallows of the beach in the stifling heat of a Florida Summer. My family was on our vacation with a sizable leg of our trek in the minivan through the Southern states still ahead of us.  The waves were breaking atypically close to the shoreline, and I was typically unconcerned about them. An unusually strong wave (or so it seemed to me) swept me under without any warning. One moment I was breathing the warm air under the radiant warmth of the Florida sun; the next moment, which seemed like one of the longest I have experienced, I felt like a sock at the bottom of the washing machine. I tumbled around I know not how many times; my eyes burned from the saltwater as I strained wide-eyed to discern which way was up; my lungs felt about to burst. Just then, a hand grasped my shoulder and pulled me up out of the breaking surf. My father had apparently seen me go under and quickly came to the rescue. In his haste, however, he lost his glasses in the waves. The rescue was a gift; the loss of the glasses made it a costly one. My father spent the rest of the vacation—day and night—in an old pair of prescription sunglasses. He looked great; he just couldn’t see very well, especially at night.

Those glasses are a small loss in retrospect, but they weighed heavily on my mind at the time. I scoured the shoreline up until the moment we left that beach in hopes catching a glint of reflected sunlight wash up in the sand. Being the recipient of a costly gift causes one to feel an oddly heavy combination of sheepishness and obligation, guilt and gratitude. I would have all too gladly found those glasses and made a return on the gift, in order to rid myself of the feeling. I think the feeling comes from recognizing the pain of sacrifice in the giver of a costly gift and knowing that pain is on your account.

A costly gift cuts into the substance of the giver (in every sense of the word ‘substance’—being, wealth, and the stuff we are made of). Christianity is bravely built on the recognition of the high moral worth of the costly gift. Indeed, Christmas is a celebration of a Costly Gift.

In Mark 12:41-44, Jesus and his disciples sit watching the worshipers at the Temple make their contributions to the treasury. Many rich people, we are told, give large sums of money but always in amounts that they can spare–casual gifts, we might say. Eventually, Jesus sees a poor widow drop in two copper coins—the smallest coins available. Jesus calls his disciples over to witness what Jesus considers an act of extravagant generosity. He says, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” According to Jesus’ calculations, she has given “more.” She has given a costly gift to her Lord God, a gift that cuts deeply into her meager livelihood. I can’t help but imagine her, despite her grinding poverty, as a joyous person, because (and few know this) only joyous people are so generous.

The widow gave all she had to live on. In this she has a beautiful kinship with our Lord. He took on flesh and blood precisely so that he could give his life. This costly gift culminates on Good Friday, but at Christmastide we celebrate the first stage of that costly giving, when in the incarnation and birth he took on the flesh that would be killed and the blood that would be shed. What was it that Paul said? “For you know the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

This Christmas amidst all the good and proper joys of gift-giving and gift-unwrapping, of feasting and singing, let us remember the Costly Gift of Jesus Christ, our incarnate Lord. Let us remember Him who lost not glasses but His Life, not so that we feel sheepish and guilty, but profoundly and life-changingly grateful. I promise that this won’t dampen your joy and your Christmas spirit. If anything, it will deepen them.

Merry Christmas!

What is Love?

meaningful-advent

December 22

Read Mark 12:13-34

 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:29-30)

We hear talk about something called ‘love’ almost unceasingly.  Apparently, people know what they mean by this word. ‘Love’ means something along the lines of: “affirming and accepting another for who they truly are.” Howard Jones, who undoubtedly knows something about all this, says, “Love is letting each other be who we are without fear of censure.” When we care for, cherish and affirm another person, without demanding that they be just like us, then we are loving them. When we receive this kind of attention, we are being loved. ‘Love’ is what will make our world a better place, our society more just and our lives more meaningful and enjoyable. ‘Love’ is set in binary opposition to ‘hate’ and ‘judgment’, which have the reverse affect on the world, society and our lives. ‘Jesus’ obviously was for ‘love,’ we are told. ‘Love’ wins.

I am not sure that I disagree with the definition and assertions above. I could probably affirm that ‘love’, if consistently applied, would make our society a more just, or at least more tolerable, one. But I am afraid that that ‘love’ is just a bit too abstract for me. Moreover, I am quite sure that Jesus meant something different, more concrete and more demanding, when he spoke of ‘love’. For Jesus, ‘love’ is only comprehensible in light of the One God who has staked his claim on our life and the life of every human being. Jesus can’t talk about love without also talking about God.

A scribe comes to Jesus to ask, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replies by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”

It is vitally important to notice that when Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment—that is, what we are morally required to do— Jesus’ response begins not with a commandment but a statement about what is, not with an imperative but an indicative. For Jesus the commandment to love can only be understood in light of the truth that there is one God; the Lord of Israel alone is God. This God is unwilling that we share our affections and allegiance with any other god; for he and he alone is God. Because he alone is God, he lays exclusive and exhaustive claim to every aspect of our lives. From this theological truth flows the command: Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

We can talk all day about ‘love’, but if our love-talk does not take place in the context of a deep awareness of the exclusive and exhaustive claim of God upon our lives, then we are not talking about what Jesus is talking about. We may say many profound and good and heart-warming things, but these thoughts won’t touch the reality Jesus speaks of when he says “love.”  It would be like me talking all day about the meaning of marital love without ever mentioning the concrete demand that my relationship with Joette (my wife) makes upon my affections.

For what Jesus means by “love” is not an abstract ‘love’. It is terribly concrete. It is not undemanding approbation, but a jealous and demanding kind of thing. God wants it all, Jesus tells us—the deepest affections of our hearts, the most exalted flights of our souls, the highest thoughts of our minds and the greatest strength of our wills. To change the metaphor: if our lives were a house, he wants to be enthroned in every room, not just the living room but the kitchen, the den and the bedroom too. When we start to let him have all this territory—well, that is love as Jesus understands it.

Jesus tacks on another commandment to the first, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” People who talk about ‘love’ a lot like to start here. Jesus doesn’t. Jesus begins with the love of God and he expects love of others to flow from that first, great love. After all, Jesus can’t talk about love without also talking about God. We can’t begin to love others, in the way Jesus means love, until we begin to yield ourselves to God.

Where does this leave us? Frankly, it leaves us in Advent for just a little while longer—the time of waiting and preparation, the time of preparing while we wait and waiting while we prepare. How do we prepare? Simply, by examining every feature and facet of our lives—what our hearts love, what our minds dwell on, what our wills choose, and what we do with our bodies—and asking ourselves where our allegiances stray from that first, great love of God. In identifying these, we then pray for a greater measure of the Holy Spirit who pours the love of God into our hearts from his boundless store (Romans 5:5).

Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire!

****

Christological Addendum

My claim above is that we can’t talk about love Christianly without also talking about God. Anything else is, from Christian point of view, an abstraction. It occurs to me, however, that we still aren’t being concrete enough. Yes, it is true that we can’t talk about love without talking about God. This is straightforwardly Jesus’ point in the above passage. But we must move a step further in order to keep pace with the rest of the New Testament. St. Paul writes that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Likewise, St. John tells us, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). What point am I making here? Quite simply, we can’t talk about love without talking about God, and we can’t talk about God without talking about Jesus. (We confess this latter point about the inseparability of God and Jesus every week in the Nicene Creed when we say that he is “of one Being with the Father.”) Love, as a Christian concept, is inseparable from God’s love for lost sinners in sending Jesus Christ to die for us on the cross. That is the very definition of love. Anything else is ‘love’–an abstraction. I would dare say, we are not going to make any progress in fulfilling the command to love God and neighbor until we fix our eyes on the love of the Crucified Lord and have our hard hearts melted by what we see there.

Born to Die

meaningful-advent

December 21

Read Mark 11:27—12:12

“They will respect my son.” (Mark 12:6)

It is at our own spiritual peril that we forget—amidst the haze of Christmas cheer and cozy warmth of vague “seasonal” sentimentality—that Christ was not born into this world so that God could discover “in the flesh” what nice people we are. He was born into a world full of people who had put themselves at odds with God. Or to put it less politely, God-with-us means, in the first place, God-among-his-enemies. Jesus Christ was born to die. His humble birth in Bethlehem was the first of many self-abnegations that culminated in his death on the cross at Calvary.

To a certain extent the story presented to us in the four Gospels is a story of rejection. What happens when we sinners finally get our hands on God? We kill him.

Jesus tells the harrowing parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12:1-12. An owner of a vineyard living abroad desires the fruit of his land, as is good and right. So, he sends a servant to collect. The tenants beat him and send him packing and empty-handed. He sends more servants; and the tenants either beat them to a pulp or kill them. Finally, he thinks to send his beloved son. Delighted, the tenants kill him in an effort to take over inheritance of the vineyard once and for all.

The meaning of the parable is clear enough to Jesus’ hearers. God had sent his prophets to Israel time and time again. Yet Israel had rejected God’s word. Finally, God sent his beloved Son. “Come, let us kill him and the inheritance will be ours,” said Israel. And in this rejection of God, Israel stands in for all of us human sinners. Jesus Christ was born to die.

The Gospel is a story of rejection. But even more it is a story of what God in his incomprehensible mercy accomplishes through that rejection. When humanity said, “Let us take the inheritance,” God said, “Let them have it.” We kill God’s Son and God uses that murder to make us his sons and daughters. Through the cross of Christ God reconciles the world to himself. Through the cross God deals once and for all with those who had put themselves at odds with him. Jesus Christ was born to die for us and for our salvation. This is the inner meaning of Christmas: God took on flesh, but mortal flesh and eventually murdered flesh; and a more wondrous thing can scarcely be imagined.

Why?

Karl Barth tells us: “God condemned sin in the flesh, not in our own flesh but in that of Jesus Christ.” Thanks be to God.

A Humble Lord in a Mess of Allusions

meaningful-advent

December 20

Read Mark 11:1-26

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9)

In one of his reflections on Jesus’ royal yet humble entrance into Jerusalem, Tim Keller draws an illuminating parallel with Revelation 5:5-6: “And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne.” John is commanded to look for the lion, but when he turns to look, he sees not the lion but the lamb. In this eleventh chapter of Mark, we are told to behold our king. When we turn to look, however, we don’t see an imposing royal figure on a blooded mount trailed by a splendid retinue of soldiers. We see, as Romano Guardini has put it, a poorly dressed man on a donkey with a coat as a saddle—a humble Lord.

We might wonder at the appropriateness of these Palm Sunday reflections in late Advent as we sidle up closer by the minute to our Christmas festivities. Still, one ancient preacher, St. John Chrysostom, heard the deep resonance of Jesus’ royal yet humble entrance to Jerusalem and his divine yet lowly entrance into our world in his incarnation and birth that first Christmas. He preached in a sermon on the so-called Triumphant Entry: “Even when He was to be born He sought not a splendid house, nor a mother rich and distinguished, but a poor woman, and one that had a carpenter as her betrothed husband; and is born in a shed and laid in a manger.” Again—a humble Lord.

I think I hear yet another resonating echo of Palm Sunday in Christmastide. For at the Christ Mass we not only wonder at the way the Lord of glory at one time made his humble way into our world; we also wonder at the way he now makes his way into our hands and onto our lips in the humble forms of bread and wine. Is it not significant that in the Eucharistic liturgy we make the words of the crowds of Jerusalem our own as we cross ourselves? Blessed + is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Pope Benedict XVI, the theologian, said it well, “Just as the Lord entered the Holy City that day on a donkey, so too the Church saw him coming again and again in the humble form of bread and wine.” John Betjeman, the poet, said it better:

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

Yet again—a humble Lord.

May I highlight one final resonant note—one that is perhaps of the most personal interest to each of us? That the Lord of glory would humble himself to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, or our world in a manger, or our churches in bread and wine, is one thing. But what about our sin-sick, guilt-laden and shame-weary lives? Yes, here too—especially here!—he is willing to make his humble entrance. Even here—a humble Lord.

What Do You Want?

meaningful-advent

December 19

Read Mark 10:32-52

“What do you want me to do for you?”

James and John, whom Jesus tellingly has nicknamed the sons of thunder, come to Jesus with a request (a demand?) in the form of what must be one of the funniest lines in all of the scriptures: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” What they lack in subtlety and self-awareness they certainly make up for in boldness. [Speaking of ‘self-awareness’: when we are done chuckling at their all-too-human foibles, we might do well to remember the time(s) that we have boldly undertaken the task of telling God how to do his job.]

Jesus’ reply is both disarming and penetrating. He doesn’t respond how I would respond to my children, for instance, if they spoke to me this way. I will give you one chance to re-phrase what you just said to me! Rather, he says, “What do you want me to do for you?” This is not an innocuous question. It is the question that exposes the state of the human heart.

What do you want? What do you desire? What do you love to such an extent that you are willing to throw at it your time, your energy, your money, your anxiety, your self, to get it?

What you desire above all else, you love above all else. What you love above all else, you worship. What you worship—if it’s not God—will eat you alive, as David Foster Wallace points out and as Jesus knew centuries prior. Jesus is seeking, with this question, to expose idols of the human heart.

James and John utter fail to play their idolatries close to the chest: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” What do they want? Rather than pray as Jesus taught them, Thine is the power and the glory, they want glory and power for themselves. Idolatry.

What do you want? Power and glory, like James and John? Control? Comfort? Acceptance?

Where are you throwing your money, your time and your energy?

What do your anxieties tell you about what really matters to you?

The season of Advent is as good a season as any, I reckon, to work on rooting out the growth of idolatry in our hearts. This requires of course allowing Jesus’ question to penetrate our hearts—as painful as that may be. Even more painful, however, is putting the idol to death. And yes, Jesus unsentimentally and without flinching asks us to put it to death. He asks us to bring every idolatrous desire to the cross for execution. He asks us, moreover, to do this again and again, until at last, one day, that one great desire, the desire for the love of God, has totally and without remainder won our hearts. This present pain is all to a good purpose.

For finally, on that Day we will say to him, “Lord, we want you to give us whatever we ask.” He will reply, “What do you want me to give you?” We will respond, “Just you, Lord.” He never has and never will turn down that request.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Musings on Wendell Berry and Church Membership

[Originally appeared in the November Messenger, Trinity’s newsletter.]

Image result for wendell berry

Throughout his various novels and short stories, Wendell Berry chronicles community life in the imagined rural town of Port William, Kentucky. Berry reverently—though not without poking fun, too—explores the themes of rootedness in time and place, rural rhythms of life, the intersection of family and community relationships, and shedding blood, sweat and tears in working the land. ‘Membership’ emerges as a dominant theme, which is especially powerful when conceived as an alternative to the fragmented and hollowed-out communities yielded by Western individualism and voluntarism. Membership means belonging to one another, no less than my right hand belongs to my body. For Berry, my identity is not self-conceived, self-chosen and self-constructed apart from a community; it is not something dredged up out of the murky depths of my individual experience (if there is such a thing, which I doubt very much). My identity is given to me by the communities to which I belong, to which I am bound as a member. Free choice is not eliminated here but rather re-situated: my best hope of ‘freedom’ is by choosing to pour myself into the community that can best shape me into a virtuous man.

‘Church membership’, it must be admitted, fails to conjure up the same rich associations as Wendell Berry’s Port William membership. We think merely of attendance, monetary dues and occasional volunteering. This only shows that we are doing it wrong, which in turn stems from imagining it wrong. Paul, for instance, calls the church a ‘body’ that has Jesus as its head and for which each member is indispensable. I wonder if we simply fail to imagine the church rightly, and so we fail to engage it deeply enough. That is to say, the church could be a ‘membership’ into which we pour ourselves and find that, miraculously, we are given back to ourselves as deeper, more virtuous people than we could have possibly expected. Paul called this phenomenon the Body of Christ, later Christians called it the Communion of Saints, and Wendell Berry calls it Membership.

In Remembering, Andy Catlett, a Port William farmer from generations of farmers, stands a long way from home on a pier overlooking the San Francisco bay. He has grown increasingly estranged from his wife and children, and he is wrestling with the temptation to create a new life for himself on the blank canvass of anonymous coastal California. Free and unconstrained by his membership in the Port William community, he could do or become anything. This, he discovers, is his problem: “All choice is around him, and he knows nothing that he wants. I’ve come to another of thy limits, Lord. Is this the end?” Apart from his Port William membership, Andy does not know who he is and what he ought to do. Realizing this, he chooses to return:

On the verge of his journey, he is thinking about choice and chance, about the disappearance of chance into choice, though choice be as blind as chance. That he is who he is and no one else is the result of a long choosing, chosen and chosen again. He thinks of the long dance of men and women behind him, most of whom he never knew, some he knew, two he yet knows, who, choosing one another, chose him. He thinks of the choices, too, by which he chose himself as he now is…Those choices have formed in time and place the pattern of a membership that chose him, yet left him free until he should choose it, which he did once, and now has done again.

I wonder if we Western Christians aren’t a bit like Andy Catlett. We feel the pull of a consumerist culture that promises that we can fashion for ourselves an existence that will make us and our children happy if only we throw at it enough of our time and money. Andy Catlett finds himself again by choosing to limit himself, to limit his possibilities, and return to the community that created him in the first place. As Christians we will find ourselves again—along with some powerful glimpses of that happiness that we so desire—if we choose to limit ourselves and to pour ourselves into the church, the body of Christ, the communion of saints, the pattern of membership that precedes us, embraces us and could shape us in wonderful ways, if we would but let it.