Weekly Preaching: September 27, 2020

September 23rd, 2020

Exodus 17:1-7 is rich with possibilities. Methodists shouldn’t, but they do get confused about grace, thinking it’s some grand favor God offers if we accept it, ask for it, believe in it. Here the Israelites are the antithesis of faith. They grumble, and ask only to return to Egypt. God responds with — grace, mercy, water in the wilderness. God’s like that.

The Jewish festival of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, commemorating the wilderness wanderings, begins October 2. Jewish families create little shelter-like structures in their homes. Fascinating. Talk to a rabbi. See if you can get invited over for a glass of wine. In your sermon, tell your people what you’re doing. They’ll be jealous.

This business of Israel demanding proof should draw many people in. Anselm, Aquinas and a host of brilliant people have devised proofs for God’s existence. Logic can’t bend the will or the heart though. As we’ll see in Philippians 2, Jesus ‘proved’ God by utterly ungodlike actions: humbling, debased, being abused and killed. There. That’s the only proof you get. 

Philippians 2:1-13 is one of the high water marks in all of Scripture, almost a creed-like distillation of the entire story of redemption. Scholars think it was an early Christian hymn. The joke’s on Leigh Teabing and The DaVinci Code, claiming Constantine made up the divinity of Jesus stuff in the fourth century. Here’s a song from two decades after Jesus, extolling him as God come down. Karl Barth: “A text like this can hardly be approached with sufficient care and concentration, for it offers so much in so few verses — a little compendium of Pauline testimony.” 

Little things charm me here (and so does the big thing…).  “If there is any encouragement…” A big if indeed! Nobody gets too much. Christians encourage. Do it. Invite others. It opens up the possibility of “being of one mind,” so elusive for us, even in church life. The culture never tells you to “Regard others as better than yourselves” — which is curious, since we seem quite naturally to do two weird things constantly: we harbor dark feelings of insecurity, suspecting others have it better, scanning Facebook with envy, etc.; but then we pass snarky judgment on others as if we’re superior — no more than a knee-jerk reaction to our sense of inferiority. Paul wants neither, but the clarity that is humility. Humility is simple honesty.

“Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” No politician since John F. Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”) has ever uttered such words, and neither have advertisers. And then the last two verses!  Can you hear the paradox: “Work out your salvation, knowing God is at work in you.” Do I work? Does God work? Do I work and then realize God’s the one doing it? Yes.

The hymn proper begins in v. 5. Translators differ on how to render the very beginning. Should it be the familiar “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself”? or the equally valid “Because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself”? God didn’t temporarily suspend being God, masquerading as empty, humble, obedient and slave-like for a season. God, in Christ, showed us God’s heart, what it always has been and will be like. His wasn’t to grasp (can we picture Adam and Eve grabbing that fruit? or Prometheus seizing the fire of the divinities?), or to consume, but to be emptied, poured out, “born.” God thought I want them to know and love me — so I’ll do this: I’ll become an infant, totally vulnerable, dependent, the antithesis of power. Maybe then they will be tender toward me and each other.

As von Balthasar wrote, “In the Incarnation, the triune God has not simply helped the world, but has disclosed himself in what is most deeply his own.”  Infancy, and crucifixion:  this is God.  Paul moves into glorification — but as Barth reminds us, when the crucified one is glorified, “the abasement is not washed out or cancelled — it is he [the crucified one] who is exalted; it is to him the great name is given; it is of him who abased himself that all that follows is said.”

This downward mobility, this life as emptying, will be ours the closer we are to Jesus. Think the whole life of St. Francis. My book, Weak Enough to Lead, got its title from Hudson Taylor, a pioneer English missionary to China: “God chose me because I was weak enough. God does not do his great works by large committees. He trains somebody to be quiet enough, and little enough, and then he uses him.”

My preaching on this text focuses not on us or a Christlike demeanor or behavior, but on Christ. Stephen Fowl: “The best way to think of Christ’s manifestation of the glory of God is in terms of Christ’s beautiful body, a beauty that is not diminished but enhanced by taking the ‘form’ of a slave.” 

George Hunsinger, in his brand new Brazos commentary, is especially wise on this. “Christ Jesus does not consider his glorious mode of existence as something that cannot be relinquished. He can relinquish it without ceasing to be who he is. Indeed he is never more fully who he is than in the act of relinquishing it. He relinquishes his glorious mode of existence without ceasing to be God. He does not refuse to act selflessly, at cost to himself, for the good of others.” Jesus’ “emptying” (kenosis) isn’t a subtraction, but addition (in keeping with the view of Athanasius, Aquinas and Barth!).

Let’s ponder relinquishment. My new book Birth has a chapter on adoption — and I am awed by Kelly Nikondeha’s wisdom (in her lovely book, Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World), pondering her own adoption as a baby: “A woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness.” Then, pondering the woman who bore her, she tries to fathom if her giving her child up was a rejection? or rather a relinquishment? The woman who did not have to carry the child for so long actually did, at considerable physical cost. What if surrendering your child at birth is a loving relinquishment, not rejection, a humble acquiescence in the face of crushing circumstance? Is there a surprising kinship between a birth mother relinquishing her child for another so both can have fullness of life, and Jesus laboring for us in life and in death so we might have life?

Notice I’m shrinking from offering illustrative material here. There’s really nothing like what Jesus did. Can the preacher trust the Jesus story, or the image of the crucified One, without dressing it up or lunging to “make it relevant?” Ours is to retell the story, and to be in awe and wonder. The preacher leads the way for the people. The preacher exhibits her own awe, his own wonder, inviting the people to join us in singing our own hymn about the glory of the humble Christ.

Matthew 21:23-32. Very much like Socrates before him, Jesus answered questions with questions. I love the way this text delves into the privacy of their minds, struggling how to reply to the one they thought would struggle. Fearful, they try “We do not know.” Then, with considerable cheek, Jesus injects, “Then neither will I tell you.” Davies and Allison read this as indirect confirmation of Jesus’ authority: “He need not submit to question. His refusal is in fact veiled affirmation.”

We’re fonder of Jesus’ other “A man had two sons” story. This one is edgy. He lobs an easy question at his critics. They tumble right into his trap. The point here isn’t that actions are more important than words; we’ve all seen that made up quote from St. Francis, “Preach always, use words only when necessary.” Jesus is interested in who actually shows up, who actually follow him instead of hiding out in pillared religious zones.

Plenty of stories present themselves. Tony Campolo tells his funny, moving story about Agnes’s birthday in Hawaii. Greg Boyle tells about Mario, the tattooed ex-gang member. Jason Byassee tells a great story of a church of ex-cons, homeless and drug users being birthed in a barbershop. Better if you have one of your own, of course.

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