Sunday, January 18, 2009

Epiphany 2

Something New…

Is there anything new under the sun?

It is pretty easy to think that nothing ever changes isn’t it? Or rather, it is easy to become pessimistic about the state of the world.

Think about this. IBM, Nortel, Microsoft Canada, GM, the Globe and Mail, to name a few companies, have started laying off thousands of employees. GM alone is cutting 30% of its manufacturing work force. Economists who are supposed to know about these things say there will be about 250,000 jobs lost in Canada alone this year.

Oh, and then there is Iraq, Afghanistan, Ghaza, and the whole slew of warfare ravaging the planet. You can look it up – there are currently 9 major wars being fought – that means with casualties over 1000 people per year, Sri Lanka, Congo, Darfur, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somali, the second Intifada War (which we know as Gaza), and the Mexican drug war. 4 million people have been killed in the Congo, and 400,000 in Somalia… but we somehow forget to rank them as high as Iraq, or places where Americans are involved.

There are 16 smaller scale wars being fought right now, in case you were wondering.

This is to say nothing of Global Warming, the rise in the drug trade, violent crime, or any of the other things darkening our doorsteps.

I don’t want us to ignore this stuff when it comes to church. I think it is important to set everything in the real world context; because it is exactly in the real world that our Biblical heroes find themselves.

Hear this: ‘Now the boy Samuel was ministering in the temple under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rarely heard…’ In other words this was a time when people questioned God’s presence, when not a whole lot of people could look around and say, God is with us! We’re told that in this time visions were not widespread. In other words people groped in the dark, and they lacked direction and God didn’t seem to be communicating too well… See what I mean?

The author is communicating to us on so many levels, trying to help us envision just how terrible everything seemed. Think about this, Eli’s sight was dim. Do you think we are only talking about his eyes, or are we also thinking about the fact that Eli, as a priest, is no longer really connected to God, his “vision” is failing.

Then there is that great line; ‘while Samuel slept in the temple of the Lord… Before the lamp of God had gone out…’ Of course the setting of the story is night-time and at one level the reference is doubtless to the actual lamp that illuminated the temple and that was dimming to a faint glow. But surely there is something deeper here: it was the very light of God’s presence that was flickering and stuttering and about to be extinguished, leaving the land in a state of utter spiritual abandonment.

Have you ever had anyone ask you why you go to church? There is a preacher in the states, he fills his church with hundreds of thousands of people every Sunday, his name is Joel Osteen, and he is the minister of Lakewood church; where there are no less than 8 church services every week. His church seats 16,000 people and his sermons are seen in over 100 countries, he was named by ABC News as one of the 100 most interesting people in the world, and, well, he is famous.

Here is his message: God is nice, I am nice, be nice.

Which is not a bad message; if it were not for one thing: life sucks.

Each and every one of you gathered here today has had something happen that is so terrible it has made you question everything. Each week we hear about, read about, or experience something happening that makes us wonder about this so called nice god. 1 out of every 3 women is raped, 1 out of every 4 people gets AIDS, and 1 out of every 2 people has a cardiac incident… for example.

And although a lot of people through the centuries, a lot of good people, and a lot of religious people, have offered escapism from this real dark vision of our existence, the Bible does not.
The Bible shows us people who can barely lift their heads.

Eli is alone and heartbroken trying to find some good of his life while taking care of the temple and its young apprentice Samuel.

And then there is Nathaniel; perhaps the most interesting story of the calling of a disciple ever. Here he is, sitting under a tree while there is a religious revival going on, not even bothering to listen, when his friend Philip comes running over and says, “you gotta come see this, there is a preacher over her who is going to change the world, and he comes from Nazareth!”

Philip is all excited about this new thing and he gets a jaded, cynical response… “Really, there is something good out of Nazareth?” How would we say that? “Really, you are trying to tell me there is something good out of Ottawa? Or Moncton, or…”

We don’t tend to look too closely at the historical situation of Ancient Palestine. It is strange that we do not because it adds so much depth to the story. So look for a moment at the situation behind Nathaniel’s cynicism. What we need to know about Nazareth is that it was more than just a dull and despised place. It was also a dark place. Around the time of Jesus there were a number of rebellions and uprisings against the Roman occupiers in the area where Jesus lived. Such rebellions were put down ruthlessly. The Romans did not meet insurrection with half measures. One such rebellion occurred in a place called Sepphoris, just a few miles north of Nazareth, around the time of Jesus’ birth. The Roman response was swift, capturing and burning Sepphoris and reducing its inhabitants to slavery. And what do you think happened to small villages adjacent to Sepphoris? What do you think happened to the tiny hamlet of Nazareth just four miles away? Well, we don’t know.

But we do know what happened next time a rebellion broke out at a place called Gerasa, which also features in the Gospel story. We’re told that the Roman general ‘put to the sword a thousand of the youth, who had not already escaped, made prisoners of women and children, gave his soldiers license to plunder property, and then set fire to the houses and advanced to the surrounding villages. The able-bodied fled, the feeble perished, and everything left was consigned to the flames.’ Locals in the vicinity of places associated with rebellion faced murder, rape and enslavement.

So – can anything good come out of that? It is like asking, can anything good come out of Auschwitz? Can anything good come out of Rwanda?

But we didn’t start with cynicism, we started with Samuel. Let’s cast our eyes back to the silent darkness where the lamp of God glows so dimly and so faintly and if we listen very carefully, what do we hear? In the stillness there is a faint voice to be heard: ‘Samuel, Samuel…’ And the voice of the child replies, ‘Here I am…’ Of course in the fading, tired order of things Samuel can only interpret what is happening in terms of the old, the familiar. It must be Eli that is calling. And Eli likewise at first cannot discern the voice of God in Samuel’s story for God doesn’t speak any more. But it is not Eli calling and Samuel is not mistaken. It is the voice of God, gentle but firm, easily mistaken, yet persistent. And so God enters into that dark, empty place and suddenly something new is stirring. God is there, and at work.

History has been memorably described as ‘just one damn thing after another’ but perhaps that is wrong. The voice of God is heard in dark times. Something new does come out of scarred and despised places like Nazareth. But the task is to discern it. Like Samuel, Like Eli, we can all too easily fail to recognize it. Like Nathaniel, our prejudices and presumptions can cloud our eyes so that we are oblivious to it.

Last Sunday the readings directed us to Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, and there is a very striking phrase in the description of what happened there. We are told that as Jesus emerged from the water John ’saw heaven being torn open’. Then the Spirit descended on Jesus and a voice came from heaven, declaring Jesus to be the beloved of God. That’s dramatic, eye-catching stuff! The skies splitting apart - this is an epiphany, a manifesting of who Jesus is. Here something new is breaking in from above, tearing open the skies, invading the world. But that is not how it usually happens. More often, rather than breaking in from above, God emerges without fanfare from below with offers of new life and new hope - a voice in the night, a stranger from Nazareth.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Yes, to our surprise, Jesus does. Can something new emerge from old, tired, scarred places? Yes, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it does. And in dark places today, places like Nazareth, God will be at work. In Nazareth itself, as well as in Gaza, in a land where Palestinians face all kinds of oppression and humiliation, people will be caring for one another, sharing with one another, supporting one another. And in other places like Congo, or Somalia, or Zimbabwe there will be stories of heroism and love and self-sacrifice. Here God will be found and God’s voice heard, if only in whispers, and Jesus will emerge.

This is why I come to church. This is what I believe in. This is a dark and cynical world where we are told that there is no hope, there is no good, there is no love, there is no peace… and too often church can begin to seem a little bit like it did in Samuel’s day; like that candle of hope is flickering…

I know that is not the last word, however, I know that there is that quiet and unexpected voice, where something good surprises us in the midst of all this pain and darkness. There is always something new, and that something new is the love of God bubbling up and changing everything.

We need to keep our eyes and ears open.

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