"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Another sermon (moved)

Another Sermon... I need to post something "real" soon, I know.

It’s a typical day in the Temple. Inside, priests and people are making sacrifices, celebrating their relationship with God, sharing a meal in the presence of the Almighty. Because the Passover was coming near, the Temple was especially busy. The population of Jerusalem doubled at Passover time as pilgrims came in from the countryside to celebrate the feast. During the rest of the year, they could worship in their synagogues, but the only place they could make their sacrifices was at the Temple, and Passover required a sacrifice, specifically a lamb, which was then the centerpiece of the Passover feast.

We think of the Temple as being like church, but it wasn’t. There were no pews, people didn’t sit in neat rows and hear one specific speaker. Synagogue was a little more like church, but in the Temple, there was wide open space, rabbis taught and disciples would gather around, there was the noise of animals being led to the sacrifice, sheep bleating, cows lowing. God’s temple had the sounds of an active barnyard.

And the animals themselves, God makes demands on what kind of animals they had to be. They had to be perfect, without blemish or defect. God didn’t want the second best, the leavings, the sheep not worth breeding, the cow with too little flesh on its bones to use for the next expected family celebration. It was understood that all things came from God and therefore it was fitting and right that we should return some of it to him. And it was understood that our God who gives us everything good and right, who is sovereign over all creation, deserved the very best of the flocks and herds and fields.

At times, in Israel’s history, though, people didn’t obey. They didn’t give their best to God. Instead, they reserved the best for themselves, offering to God sacrifices that were not sacrificial at all. Here, God, this lamb won’t live anyway, you can have it. This goat is diseased, this cow is lame, let us sacrifice what we won’t miss. The people seemed to believe that God wouldn’t notice, or maybe they believed that God wouldn’t provide for them the very best if they didn’t hoard these things for themselves in the first place. To them, their greed was larger than their god.

God has words with these people throughout the Old Testament. He is clear with the people, he’s not interested in their leftovers, he wants the first-fruits. Anything less is failing to live up to the standard which God called his people to uphold. Anything less is failing to give God what is rightfully his. Anything less is robbing God. In Malachi, God asks the people, especially the priests who are responsible for what is going on, "A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, 'How have we despised your name?' By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, 'How have we polluted you?' By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil?" God goes on to note that the people did a better job of paying their taxes faithfully than they did of sacrificing to God. What’s up with that?

In Jesus time, these things were still going on. Instead of offering the best of their own herds, travelers from scattered towns thought it would be easier to buy a new lamb for the sacrifice, and like kitschy gift shops at your local tourist trap, there were plenty of guys ready to make a shekel or two selling an over priced, often pitiful quality, lamb for the sacrifice and feast. And because money with Caesar’s image on it could not be used in the Temple, for the Jews believed the graven image of any man was an abomination to God, there were plenty of guys out there who would gladly change your Roman coins for Temple money, for a fee, of course. It was a Disney World meets Cathedral sort of affair, with plenty of scam artists ready to make a quick buck, plenty of needy greedy religious tourists ready to part with a dollar for convenience and ease of living.

And Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Suddenly the hero enters the scene. If your image of Jesus is "gentle Jesus meek and mild" forget it. Meek and mild wouldn’t have gotten anyone crucified. No, instead, Jesus is a fighter, and in this case he’s like a tornado through the Temple! Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" Matthew tells us that Jesus accused them of making the Temple a "den of thieves," an appropriate allusion to those Old Testament passage where these practices are exposed as robbing God.

Perhaps, if you were there that day, you would understand the Jews’ question. To put it in the vernacular, the Jews, Temple regulars, many of whom would never consider knowingly making any misstep in the obedience of the Law, they ask the natural question: "Hey! Who told you that you could come in here and make this mess? What do you think you’re doing??" The Jews wanted to know, by what authority Jesus was doing these things.

No matter how you slice it, Jesus’ reply is astonishing. He’s claiming to have some serious power. The Jews hear him as claiming to have the power to build an entire temple on his own in three days. This is the great architectural wonder of the ancient near East! Even with our modern machinery this is impossible. And of course, we know Jesus could do this, because he is the Word through which everything that is came into being. It wasn’t until later that the disciples realized that Jesus is telling them that his authority comes from himself because, first off, he is the Temple, he is where God uniquely resides, and two, he can’t even be held in the bonds of death. Jesus’ authority rests on the fact that he can even raise himself from the dead.

So what do I want you to take out of this? It’s a great story, right, but what does it mean? Well there are two things that I’d like you to take home today. The first is that everything hinges on whether or not Jesus really rose from the dead. It’s not a metaphor, it’s not a myth, it’s not a nice story to tell the kids. It’s real, historical fact, or its worthless. As St. Paul said, if Christ is not raised, then our hope is in vain. The difference between us and the rest of the world, what it is that makes Christianity unique, is that we know that Christ was raised. He was the perfect offering, fulfilling the requirements of the Law that the sacrifice be without blemish. He was without sin. He was the final sacrifice. He was truly crucified and buried. But if he was not also raised from the dead, what good is it all? If we worship a god who can be defeated and murdered, what strength do we have?

But Jesus also is the first-fruit. In the Old Testament that’s another fitting image of offering God the best in faith of his provision for our needs. Paul says Jesus is the first fruits of the dead, he is the first one raised so that we can have faith that God will raise us, will provide more fruit, you and me. If Christ is not raised, our hope is in vain.

But, and here is point number two, if Christ IS raised, he has authority. He comes into the temple like he owns the place because, if he is who he says he is, if he is the Lord, he DOES own it. He has the authority to call these greedy God-robbers to task because he is the one being robbed. And he has authority in our lives, also, to call us to task. By his sending his Holy Spirit, we become his Temple, and he has to have authority in our lives to do the necessary housekeeping, to call us to task.

It’s a difficult thing for Americans to place themselves under authority. In this world where we all are supposed to want to "be your own boss" and independence and even rebellion are virtues, we Christians have to come to terms with the fact that we are indeed under the authority of another. If Christ is raised from the dead (and he is!) then we must accept that he has authority over us, our lives are not our own.

Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson, in their truly excellent book, Angels in the Architecture, put it this way: "in the modern world, authority of any kind is a dirty word. True authority is written off as arrogance, but this simply shows how the arrogance of individualism dislikes any organized competition. Authority is built into the world. In any given situation, someone is going to wield authority; someone is going to make the call. Our concern should be to place authority where Scripture places it." Jones and Wilson go on to say, in summary, that Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority. His will is given its most clear and authoritative form in the Scriptures. For your life, the Bible is your marching orders, and if you haven’t read the directions, you can’t follow them. Jones and Wilson go on to note that the Church also has authority, delegated by Jesus and passed down through the centuries, to help us order our lives. The creeds, the prayers, the faith, those who are in spiritual authority over you, none of these may claim any kind of authority over and above the Scriptures, but all of these have a delegated authority from the Scriptures.

This is a tough bite to swallow for us independent Americans, but in the end, we are being called to submit ourselves, to be placed under authority. If Christ is raised, he is King. Kings rule kingdoms, not democracies, their people are subject to him. If Christ is king, you are subjects.

Let us pray: O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed, and whose service is perfect freedom, give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness. Amen

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