Sunday January 19, 2020

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2020a

Old Testament - Isaiah 49:1-7

New Testament - John 1:29-42

Messy Work 

INTRODUCTION: Trying to get across the weight and insight of some biblical ideas can be tricky. There’s just too much time and space between some biblical passages and ourselves.


And then, on top of all that, there are the cultural differences as well. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the world of ancient Palestine was a far different one than our own.


And yet, that doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t loaded with profound insights and ideas that are still worth pondering. Nope. Just because the people of ancient Palestine didn’t have wi-fi and electric cars, that doesn’t mean they were a bunch of hayseeds, or that the Bible is some kind of banal and dated adult children’s book no longer worth reading. It is rather, I would argue, still a text rife with wisdom and insight. The trick, again, is trying to figure out how to get at the Bible’s wisdom across so much time and space.


Take, as just one small, quick example, the command for us not to take the Lord’s name in vain. The quick and easy answer to such a command is to say that we shouldn’t cuss and use bad language. And while I don’t wish to condone bad language, the charge not to take the Lord’s name in vain is actually much richer and more nuanced than just saying we should not cuss.   


The idea, in short, is this: People don’t need to be running around using God’s good name to justify their vile and pernicious behavior. And that’s just a good idea to honor across all time and space, right? Because whether it’s 2,000 years ago or today, people have a nasty habit of using God’s name as an excuse for all kinds of horrible behavior.


Sometimes, like in the past, people might use God’s name to go and burn a village to the ground. Today, of course, we’re just more creative. Rather than raze a village, we’ll wrap ourselves up in explosives and set it all off in a crowded market place all while shouting God’s name.


So the command not to take the Lord’s name in vain is way more than just a charge not to curse. It’s actually loaded with meaning, I think. For even today, people everywhere like to use God’s name to justify all sorts of mean and nasty behavior, right?


Well, the idea that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (As John the Baptist declares in our reading this morning) is also another one of those biblical ideas that is loaded with meaning.


You see, in John’s Gospel Jesus is sent off to his death by Pilate on the day of the Passover at noon, which is also the time the priests in the temple begin slaughtering lambs as prescribed in the Torah. And so Jesus’ crucifixion, for John, occurs at the same time as the ritual killing of the Passover lambs. Hence, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.


And still later in John’s Gospel, we learn that the soldiers in charge of Jesus’ crucifixion don’t break his legs, as they do with the other two men and was often customary. Which, again, is a reference to the Passover custom that prohibited any of the bones of a sacrificial lamb from being broken. The entire animal was to be eaten whole, with any remains left to burn on the fire.


So John the Baptist’s talk about Jesus being the lamb of the God that takes away the sin of the world would have been rich imagery, to say the least. Those hearing it would have been thinking about God’s command in Exodus when instituting the Passover requiring the people to cover their doorposts and the tops of the entryways with blood from the lamb they had just sacrificed. 


And then there would have also been the altar in the temple. That altar where the blood of the lambs and other sacrifices was actually supposed to be sprinkled, poured, and smeared on the altar. The altar, needless to say, was literally a bloody mess! And so if seeing it wasn’t enough to make one pass out, the smell surely finished the job. Sure, the altar was a holy spot, but it was far from being a pristine and aesthetically pleasing one. And it’s those kinds of images people would have had in their minds when thinking about Jesus as the Lamb of God. 


“There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins,” goes that Baptist tune. “And sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.” So John’s description of Jesus “as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is hardly a saccharine and harmonious one. Instead, it’s pretty darn right graphic, gory, and, well, bloody.


Ah, but here is the thing for me. Such descriptive language, such graphic and rough talk, actually helps remind me that salvation is, well….pretty messy work.


You see, I am of the opinion that we tend to think of salvation in kind of sterile and detached terms. Salvation, more often than not, seems to boil down to a kind of math equation. If we do X, then Y will happen and everything is fine and dandy from thereon after. If we run the equation, the thinking seems to be, the problem is solved and everything after that is roses and bon-bons. 


And if we were all robots, then maybe that might be how salvation would work. We could just reboot the system, upload the new data, do a little rewiring, and everything would be fine and dandy.  


But humans? Well, humans can rarely be boiled down to a math equation, right? For we are a slippery, fickle, and temperamental lot, aren’t we?  And so as odd as it might sound, I like the rich and admittedly rough imagery that comes with talk about Jesus being a sacrificial lamb. Because it reminds me salvation is hard, costly, and yes, messy, messy  work.


And so salvation? Salvation can be found every single day all around us, if we’re attentive. It can be found in the life-long drug addict trying to finally pull her life back together after years of abuse and leaving a trail of debris in her wake. Because salvation is messy work.     


And salvation can be found in smelly homeless shelters where volunteers and the down-and-out have gathered for a night to avoid freezing temperatures. All night long there’s the coughing, snoring, and, yes, bickering as people argue over cots and the best places to sleep. Because salvation, you see, is messy work.    


And salvation can be found whenever people offer to mentor folks fresh out of prison who are trying to get their lives going again. Because while getting off track in life can happen pretty easily to anyone, trying to right the ship is a whole lot harder - especially if a person is trying to do it all by themselves. Because salvation, again, is messy work.


And so salvation can be found around us just about everyday if we’re paying attention.


In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris says the Greek and Hebrew words translated as salvation are best understood as “being rescued from the dangers of this life.” So salvation is always more than just a spiritual state. It is also a way of being in the world that seeks to make it right, and true, and good.


Well, not a bad way to think about salvation, I think. Or as Norris writes, “It seems right to me that in so many instances in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospels, salvation is described in physical terms, in terms of the here and now, because I believe that this is how most of us first experience it.”


Fred Craddock has a marvelous story about a man named Frank who showed up one day at church wanting to get baptized at the ripe old age of 77. You see, before being baptized, Frank was the town curmudgeon. A hard working man, Frank had grown up on a ranch in western Oklahoma and had a fierce independent streak. Even more importantly, he didn’t care too much for preachers or the religion he felt they hawked. Or as Frank liked to put it to Fred Craddock, “I work hard and I take care of my family and I mind my own business.”


So Fred Craddock and the whole town were a bit surprised when Frank showed up asking to get baptized. Some thought maybe Frank was dying and wanted to cover all the angles. You know, the whole “there are no atheists in a foxhole” bit.


But after baptizing him, Craddock says he talked with Frank one day about his baptism: “Frank, do you remember that little saying you used to give me so much? ‘I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.’?”


He said, “Yeah, I remember I said that a lot.

“Do you still say that?” Craddock asked.

“Yeah, I still say it,” he said.

“So what’s the difference now?” wondered Craddock.

To which Frank replied, “Back then I didn’t know what my business was.”


You see, Frank, according to Craddock, had discovered what his business was. And his business, he had finally realized, was to serve human need - human need in all its messiness and griminess. 


CONCLUSION: Well, I wish I could tell you salvation is easy work. I wish I could tell you that all we need to do is snap our fingers and suddenly the world and everyone in it would be magically transformed. 


But that’s hardly how it works, is it? Because rescuing people from the dangers of life is messy, messy work. And it’s not like you have to take just my word for it. For there is also Jesus Christ, and that cross. That cross where the Lamb of God hung to take away the sins of the world, and to save us all from the dangers of this life.    


And now to Jesus, who loves us and freed us by his blood and made us to be a kingdom, priests of his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.