Sunday, November 24, 2013

Reign of Christ Sunday

Luke 1
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

These things always seem to start with a tax revolt.

No, I’m not talking about the birth of Ford Nation, I’m talking about the Jewish revolt. It all starts with the census of Quirinius, which took place in the Roman provinces of Syria and Judea beginning in the year 6.

Year 6, year 6. Your mind is no doubt racing, your heart rate is slightly accelerated, you can hear Linus reading from Luke 2 and you know something is terribly wrong here. The good news is that there was a census in Judea around the time of the birth of Jesus. The bad news is that dates are notoriously slippery in the study of biblical history, and so we make the best of it.

The census wasn’t really a census in the modern sense of the word. A census in Roman times was more like MPAC than Stats Canada, with a tally of the wealth in a given region, and the tax potential it represents. Romans loved to be organized, and budgeting based on potential tax revenue was just good sense.

The locals, however, were less impressed. The census reinforced their subjugation, and raised the possibility that Rome would claim more tax that the local governor had been claiming up to that point. It was from this uncertainty and anger that the Zealots formed: and from 6 until the end of the siege of Masada in 73, they were a key player in the conflict between Judea and Rome.

And so, it is this context that two children are coming into the world: John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. And while I’m not exactly claiming that a tax revolt gave us John and Jesus, it is an important part of the story, so here we go:

And you, child, will be called
the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go before the Lord
to prepare his ways.

The story begins at the beginning of what must be the longest chapter of the Bible, Luke 1. The first person we meet is Zechariah, a priest of a priestly line, married to Elizabeth, both in old age. They are childless, and like Abraham and Sarah, long past hoping for a child.

But God has other plans for Zechariah and Elizabeth, and so God does two things: promises a son to be named John—a son who will be a great prophet—and then God makes Zechariah mute.

Looking at the second thing first, it seems that angel messengers are a sensitive lot, and easily offended. Like the story of Abraham and Sarah, the news of bearing a child well past childbearing years is met with come incredulity. In Sarah’s case, she laughs, and when the angel messenger calls her on it, she lies like there’s a senate scandal underway. Obviously not a shining moment for poor old Sarah.

So maybe the angels are still mad about the whole Sarah-laughed-at-us episode. Because when old Zechariah says “how can I be sure any of this is true,” he is immediately struck dumb (dumbstruck?). Takeaway: be careful how you respond to angel messengers, they can be a bit snippy.

Back to the first promise: So just when we think we’re in some rerun of Genesis 12, Luke drops another name that we’re compelled to consider. Here’s Luke 1:

“He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (16, 17)

So if Zechariah and Elizabeth are the new Abraham and Sarah, John the Baptism is the new Elijah, then like Elijah he will prepare the way of the Lord. Now, we always have to sound a note of caution here, since the Hebrew Bible (we call it the Old Testament) remains the Bible of the Jewish religion, and was not written for the sole purpose of pointing to the Christian experience. We may see allusions and links in our reading, but we must continually remind ourselves that our reading is for us alone, and not some universal truth.

So, for our purposes, how is John the new Elijah, and how does this help our understanding? Well, the most direct link flows from the Book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament as reordered by the church. Malachi’s name literally means “I am God’s messenger,” so it follows that Elijah the great prophet should reappear at the conclusion of the book. This is the last paragraph of the Old Testament:

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Essentially, the angel messenger is repeating message the found at the end of Malachi, making it a new promise for a new day. The new message reorders the original—after removing the threat of destruction—and says that John will embody the ‘spirit and power’ of Elijah.

Now, for you fans of biblical duels, your mind will first go the greatest of them all, the duel between Elijah and the priests of Baal. Very quickly, it was Queen Jezebel who brought the worship of Baal back and offended everyone, but especially Elijah (and God, of course). So always ready for a fight, Elijah invites the priests of Baal to Mt. Carmel for a duel: (Warning, rated M for mature and may trouble vegetarians)

Elijah said, “I am the only prophet of the Lord here, but there are four hundred fifty prophets of Baal. 23 Bring two bulls. Let the prophets of Baal choose one bull and kill it and cut it into pieces. Then let them put the meat on the wood, but they are not to set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull, putting the meat on the wood but not setting fire to it. 24 You prophets of Baal, pray to your god, and I will pray to the Lord. The god who answers by setting fire to his wood is the true God.”

Well, what follows is the most humiliating defeat in the history of the Baalist religion. The priests of Baal are pleading and crying and Elijah starts to have some fun:

“Hey pray louder!” he says. “If Baal really is a god, maybe he is thinking, or busy, or traveling! Maybe he is sleeping so you will have to wake him!” (1 Kings 18.27)

Of course they fail, and then Elijah calls on God and creates the first southern barbeque in history, and the priests of Baal meet an unhappy end and the story ends. What we’re left with then is the firm impression that this is a God you do not want to mess with, particularly if your business card says “Priest of Baal.”

Back to Zechariah and his soon-to-be-born son, what we are seeing is a contrasting vision of what may come, an alternate mission for the coming ‘day of the Lord.’ We know, of course, that John uses baptism instead of calling down fire, and Jesus is the lamb of God rather than the lion, but we are still left with the angry thread and the indignities of life under Rome.

So back to taxation for a moment. Still mad about the census 30 years earlier, and now really mad that the new Emperor Caligula (yes, that Caligula) was ending the historic tolerance extended to Jews in the Roman Empire, priests like Zechariah were outraged and ready to fight. And like the situation with Queen Jezebel, Caligula wanted to put a foreign (in this case, Roman) god inside the sacred places. It was concluded that what was needed was a new Elijah who was ready to fight.

And we even see little hints of the radical program that nearly was, first in presence of Simon the Zealot, the disciple we barely hear about, and in a handful of passages that don’t quite fit our Gospel picture. Here are three, from Matthew, Luke and John:

“Do not suppose,” Jesus said, “that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Mt 10.34)

Jesus said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." (Lk 22.36)

"Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear." (Jn 18.10)

Maybe some of you are thinking lost opportunity. Think how attractive Christianity would be to 12 year-old boys if we had pursued this whole sword thing. Imagine Sword Sunday, or getting a Confirmation sword, or sacred sword play in the chancel (watch out choir!)

We didn’t follow the sword theme, although it did pop up from time to time in the history of the church. Mostly we went with a meeker Jesus, righteously indignant and not really angry, more swords into ploughshares than the other way around.

But what if we explored our inner Elijah just a little, not with swords, of course, but with some of the intensity with which he took on the priests of Baal. There is much in our world that is maddening or corrupt or just plain evil, and some time I think we need to be willing to get a little angry. Three examples:

1. According to some politicians, it’s not lying if the media doesn’t ask the right questions.

2. For every armed conflict that makes the news, there an several more we’ve never even heard of. I would blame the media, but they generally report on the things they know the audience wants to hear.

3. The Walton Family of Bentonville, Arkansas controls more wealth than the poorest 125 million Americans. This past week it was reported that some Walmart stores have food donation boxes in the back so employees can help other employees who are going hungry.

I’m going to call this “Angry Like Elijah Sunday.” And like every therapist will tell you, it don’t matter if you get angry or not, it’s what you do with the anger that matters. And so for today, Angry Like Elijah Sunday, I encourage you to do something if you’re angry: write a letter, vote, send some money somewhere, talk to your neighbour, or simply pray for a world made new.

Next Sunday Advent begins, and we begin to prepare for Christ’s coming, entering the world in a new way, beginning a revolution that remains unfinished. May God help us to prepare once more. Amen.


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