Pathways to Joy. A Lent Post.

Everybody wants to feel good. Everybody wants to celebrate. Almost everybody tries to find it in pointless and often destructive ways. Today’s thoughts for Lent call us to think about our own pursuit of joy.

John 2:1-11
2 On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. 3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

There are lots of questions we may ask concerning this passage. One of the favorites for pointless speculation is what Jesus meant and did not mean with his remark to his mother. Not going there. What I wish to focus on is the source of the best wine, not as the substance itself, but as its signifying value as the true source of joy.

No matter how hard our pursuit of good feelings, we will always run out. The source dries up, the feeling does not last, the company fades. It’s not that joy is not something good for us; that would be a difficult position to maintain in light of all the Bible has to say about joy. We were made for it, made to share in it with the Source of all things, the Giver of all good gifts. Of course we want it; and of course we want it in a way that is shared with good company, those whose expressions of joy serve to enhance our own. Jesus longed for the fellowship (not the sternness some automatically imagine) he had enjoyed with the Father and the Spirit (John 17). And he wants to bring us into that same joyful fellowship.

We’re made for joy. But we’re not made to search for it independently of God in Christ. In Augustine’s oft-quoted phrase: “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Thee.” But we don’t really believe it, do we? We insist on finding it in near total independence of its source. We try to find every short-cut imaginable to joy, and are amazingly persistent in believing it is just around the corner, almost within reach. All we need is one more level, one more relationship, one more new toy, one more of the latest model, one more time-saving technique, etc., etc. But the wine always runs out before the guests have had their fill.

Isn’t interesting that Jesus fills the need with the ordinary. Water. It’s abundant, it’s unspectacular in itself, it’s so very ordinary—until he touches it and transforms it. Our thought for today is one of repentance. We all have places we search for joy that exclude Jesus and his gospel of hope and joy. We need greater faith in him and his word that in him and him alone is fullness of joy.

Lent. And Prejudice

Have you ever hesitated to answer the question of where you come from? Or have you ever thought that you could gain insight into person’s character by asking where she came from? How often we unthinkingly fall into the trap of stereotyping people and expecting them to do the same to us, simply on the basis of what we think we know–what “everybody knows” about that particular place and its residents.

John 1:43-51
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Swallowed words seldom taste good. Most of us can imagine all too well how Nathanael felt after uttering the words reflecting everybody’s opinion of Nazarenes and then encountering Jesus, who responded by setting Nathanael’s head spinning with what he knew about him and his most recent activities. So much for the stereotypical Nazarene; this man is something different, something way beyond the norm, something regal, in spite of appearances and place of origin that would argue otherwise. Nathanael probably blurted out of his embarrassment something he had heard from Philip; like us, when found out in his prejudice, he needed to cover it with a gushing comment in the opposite direction. Ever been there?

I recognize that the primary focus of the John here is not to speak about our prejudices and how they expose themselves; his point is to continue the process just begun, of fleshing out the magnificent words of the “Prologue” (vv. 1-18), of demonstrating the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth. Yet we should not read the biblical accounts each time as though we had no knowledge of how the life of Jesus moves through his teaching, healing, confronting, scolding, challenging, embracing of people, all culminating in his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. At the climactic point of the first resurrection appearance among the disciples—including this Philip and this Nathanael—he commissions them with the words, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (20:21).

Today’s point is very simple. As we allow our thoughts and feelings to come under the scrutiny of Lenten reflection, the searching of our spirits by the word and character of Jesus we must ask where we are more prone to respond to other people out of our prejudices or out of grace. Will preconceptions continue to automatically incline us to think of ourselves in the better position, or will we be open to the truth about both ourselves and the “other”? Will we allow the commonly held opinion about “those people” to overshadow the reality that we have been sent to each and every encounter to give grace and demonstrate our knowledge of the One who is Truth? The more we respond as Jesus, the more we’ll see the heavens open and the Son coming down.

Self-Identity

Self-knowledge. It’s really the issue at the bottom of a host of questions we ask concerning our place in the world. Who are you? We’re usually comfortable answering only so far as the giving of our name. Depending on the context and the person asking, we might without too much anxiety offer a few other pieces of information. Sometimes, however, we may even find ourselves saying internally words like “You tell me; I’ve wondered the same thing.” Think about this when reading the gospel text for today.

John 1:35-42 (ESV)
35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). 42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).

There are many ways in which this passage has been used in sermons and lessons. I’m not about to suggest any particular uses have been wrong, though I’m sure some of them have been head-scratchers. And what I have to say here has undoubtedly been said before. But I’m struck by a couple of things about what Jesus had to say to Peter and to those who similarly seek him. And themselves.

It began with a man curious to find whether the report he had heard about Jesus was true. A bit beyond the norm, no doubt, to be told that a messiah had arrived after a few hundred years’ wait–yet that’s what Cephas’s brother told him, and he was intrigued enough to go and find out for himself; and he was determined to probe deeply enough, for he wanted Jesus to know this would take a while. The investigation was met with an invitation: come and see. At my place. Jesus was very willing to be found, as he continues to be; but he must be sought truthfully, not casually and on our terms. It’s not the preset ideas that will guide the honest search, neither for Cephas nor for anyone today.

Then the apparently unsolicited announcement from Jesus: you are Cephas; you will be Peter. How odd. He just met him.

What Jesus knows of Cephas is what Christ knows of each of us. He knows who we are. He knows our names, our circumstances, our joys and sorrows, strengths and weaknesses, wins and losses, heroics and failures, likes and dislikes, rebellions and loyalties, certainties and doubts—all the things that combine to make us who we are. When we think about and add to the list, it’s no wonder that we often question what the sum of it all might be. When we try to do the math we inevitably leave out some of the pieces; and it’s not always the negative things we overlook. “Know thyself” becomes an impossible task, for most of the time we can’t handle the truth.

God knows who we are, far better than we do ourselves, and tells us so by calling us by name. “I know who you are.” And he also knows who we can be, in spite of anything and everything implied in who we truly are at this time. “You will be Peter.” It’s what you were made for.

Perhaps it is time to give up defining ourselves in ways that either serve us, defend us, position us, soothe us, or excuse us. It’s never who we are that surprises or limits God. He gives us a new name, new possibilities, new purpose, new energies for the tasks individually given. Is that what it means to be “in Christ”? Let’s be content to be found there.

The First Step in Problem Solving

Presidents give speeches; it’s what they do. In the speeches they give something of a vision of what might make life better for the nation; and the opposition party gives a response because that’s what they do. Between an inauguration and a State of the Union Address in a span of less than one month, we’ve had opportunity to hear big speeches and much commentary. There’s much to say about what was said, and much to say about what was said in response. There’s something more important that wasn’t said, either by the president or by the respondents.

John 1:29-34
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

One thing missing in all of the speeches was reference to sin. It’s not that I expected to hear it or was surprised by its absence. It’s just that it should be increasingly obvious that many of the proposed legislative solutions to our most troubling and fear-inducing issues will not in themselves accomplish what needs to be done if we are to be more secure, have greater opportunities, and live more acceptingly of our neighbors near and far.

Everyone but the most uninformed and willfully ignorant person acknowledges that a man named Jesus lived in first century Palestine. What people make of him and what they will do with what they hear is another matter. The New Testament, particularly in John’s gospel, is very clear regarding why Jesus came to our world: he takes away sin.

As we read through the entirety of John’s first chapter, it stand out even more clearly. The eternal, divine Logos, through whom all things were made and all things beautiful, graceful, and truthful are revealed is then first introduced to humankind as the one who takes away the sin of the world. Not as a dictator or legislator, not as judge or as prosecutor, but as the lamb of God did he come to change our world. This, of course, means sacrifice. Of all the things we could imagine God able to do, of all the solutions He could possibly offer to the things that limit, defeat, destroy, bind, and confuse us, the first thing he announces about his personal presence in the world is that he takes away sin.

It’s too serious a matter for us to take Jesus as primarily anything before we see him as the one who removes sin. And if this is the paramount purpose of his coming, we have no choice but to see sin in all of its manifold expressions as our primary problem—in its grip upon persons young and old, wealthy and poor, as persons and as the nations formed of person, as those with every form of lifestyle. And if sin is the problem, we can attempt to limit its impact, but we cannot remove it.

Today’s thought is to look at the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; and to repent of both thinking we can use him while by-passing sin and of thinking that our real problem is anything else than sin—and anywhere else without being in ourselves.

Lent 2013.

“What are you giving up for Lent this year?” Have you heard that question over the past couple of days? Perhaps you heard—or read on facebook—unsolicited answers to the same question. Does it strike anyone else as antithetical to the discipline that one make an announcement about a practice at least partially intended to cure our pride?

Pride. That vicious animal that separates us not only from God, from our fellows–but from our own best selves as well. It is so readily identified in the other and so invisible to its bearer. And that company of bearers, of course, includes all of us to one extent or another. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, we fashion ourselves in the role of the tax collector and never the dreaded Pharisee in the story Jesus told. The more we mimic the Pharisee, the less our hope of knowing our true selves.

Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Lent, penance, reflection, self-assessment. We cannot live successfully if we spend all of our time in such a place; nor can we live very well at all if they find no place in our schedule. That would be a recipe for spiritual death. It reminds me of a cartoon someone posted, with a doctor asking an overweight fellow which one fit better into his schedule: exercising an hour a day or being dead for twenty-four? Themes dealing with reparation of heart and life constitutes a portion of the Christian year, not the whole. There’s a resurrection coming, which means newness of life. But the old stuff has to give way before the new can sprout.

People have always had difficulty with repentance. Just look through the Bible and see how both corporately and personally, letting go of that which springs from selfish motives and goals yields ground very grudgingly, if at all. Our present-day context, more than was the case in the past, seems to celebrate the prideful and the haughty, simply because those who display such traits are deemed successful; and inwardly we’d like the opportunity to strut our stuff like they do, no matter how hideous the Ray Lewises of the world appear when they do it.

We repent of lesser sins, the annoying little habits, far more readily than we do of pride. We give the things we probably would have been well advised never to have begun, then return to them after Easter, and instead of taking up the new life of resurrection, return to that from which we were initially freed. But as long as we can comfort ourselves by not having the manifold sins of the tax collector in Jesus’ story, we can thank God for our superior standing and continue on our way.

Over the coming weeks of Lent this blog will be given to the gospel lessons for the season. Some will deal with the personal, some with the corporate aspects of repentance. I invite your comments and observations; but please spare the information about what you’ve given up—I wouldn’t want you to forfeit what benefit there may be.