Sunday, February 21, 2016

Second Sunday of Lent

Luke 13
31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
32 He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’[a]”

You can’t do politics without the metonym.

What’s a metonym? A metonym is a figure of speech where a name becomes shorthand for something else. Turn on CNN and within minutes someone will mention ‘the race for the White House.’ White House is a metonym for the Executive Branch of the US government. It’s literally a house, painted white after a visit from some Canadian firebugs in 1814, but when you hear White House, you generally think ‘the president and his staff.’

Of course, the humble metonym is used beyond government (“hit the bottle” is a metonym) but somehow the ones we hear most frequently are political.

The Hill is a metonym for parliament.
Queen’s Park is a metonym for the Ontario government.
Number 10 is a metonym for the UK PM and staff.
Brussels is a metonym for the European Union.

In some ways, it is terribly unfair to someone new to our language, since the use of metonym is like a code you need to break to understand much of the news.

Think of Bay Street or Wall Street for finance.
K Street for lobbyists.
Hollywood for film.
Madison Avenue for advertising.
Nashville and Motown for music.
Scotland Yard for well, Scotland Yard.

Just yesterday we learned that Number 10 has a deal with Brussels that will soon be put to a referendum, and without the code you would be lost or think it odd that a number would negotiate with a city in Belgium.

Why share this, other than to further my belief that Lent is for learning? The reading John shared uses metonym, but it’s not entirely clear how. We think we know what it means, but it requires testing, since scripture is filled with symbolic language and figures of speech that require interpretation.

We begin with a visit with some Pharisees who warn Jesus to flee the area. Are they really helping him here? We know Jesus has a friend or two among the Pharisees, so we can assume this an attempt to help. And in response, Jesus has a few things to say:

I’m going to stick to my plan—healing, driving out demons—and on the third day I will reach my goal. Already we are deep into the symbolic language, since the ‘third day’ has meaning beyond the literal for those of us waiting for Holy Week.
He then says ‘I must press on, since no prophet can die outside Jerusalem. Here he might actually mean the City of Jerusalem, the place, and not the metonym that comes next.
Finally we enter the symbolic: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

When Jesus says Jerusalem, what does he mean? Is he referring to the people of Jerusalem, the same people who will form the crowd at the end of this journey and cry out for his death? Is he referring to the Temple, the temple administration, the chief priest and all who serve him, or the religious elite in general?

A good commentary will tell you that when Jesus says “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you” he’s being quite literal. Looking back, there are several examples of prophets treated poorly, and looking forward (which Jesus can certainly do) we see the death of St. Stephen (Acts 7) and the dangers that will appear for the disciples in Jerusalem. So Jerusalem is a literal city of trouble for some, but it’s also a symbol. And the clue is found in verse 35: “Look, your house is left to you desolate.”

At this point we can assume that friends among the Pharisees were friends no more. In what we might call ‘fightin’ words’ Jesus has just indicted everyone involved in the official religion of the day. Jesus has just pressed a rather large button that may serve to embolden his critics, and move him from a watch list to most wanted status. And it all starts with King Solomon.

Solomon, of course, builds the first temple, and creates the context for temple worship and the various assumptions that come with having God’s dwelling place in your capital city. Looking back at 1 Kings 9, we listen in on a conversation between the king and his God.

Solomon greets the LORD at the completion of the temple and God consecrates it and promises to make it a home, saying “my eyes and my heart will always be there.” God continues and promises Solomon a kingdom without end if he remains faithful to God’s laws and decrees. And then they get down to business.

God wants Solomon to understand that God is a jealous God, and a failure to be faithful will have dire consequences. This is the large button Jesus is pressing when he says ‘your house has left you desolate,’ suggesting to his former friends among the Pharisees that what Solomon hears next has come to pass. Pardon the long quote, but it’s a good one, and it hints at the way Israel and Jerusalem are symbols:

“But if you[a] or your descendants turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you[b] and go off to serve other gods and worship them, 7 then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. Israel will then become a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. 8 This temple will become a heap of rubble. All[c] who pass by will be appalled and will scoff and say, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’ 9 People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them—that is why the Lord brought all this disaster on them.’”

Jesus is suggesting that all everything that is wrong with the temple and the people who run it will result in the very thing God says to Solomon. Maybe he’s suggesting it’s already happening, and will happen in ernest in the time to come. Whatever the timeline, Jesus’ words are the first step toward turning the tables, the final protest that will lead to the cross. Jerusalem will kill another prophet, and we will await the third day.

While we’re on the topic of symbols, it’s unfortunate that Pharisee has become a metaphor for someone excessively legalist or hard-hearted. Yes, Jesus has almost continuous conflict with the Pharisees, and they get to fill the role of ongoing adversaries, but this may have more to do with the story that comes later than the conflict presented in the Gospels themselves.

After the temple is destroyed, and the remnants of Judaism regroup, it is the Pharisees who take the lead, and become the chief representatives of the religion that will soon compete with the emerging church. This is already happening when the Gospels are being written, and making the Pharisees into villains serves the needs of the early church.

In fact, there are some scholars who suggest Jesus was a Pharisee, or at least represented the views of various schools of thought that were active in the first century. True or not, Jesus is part of an internal debate in his own religion, and his criticism should never be considered anti-Judaic.

For us, in this Lenten season, we are left with a jealous God who continues to return to this idea of serving other gods. And following what seems to be the theme of the day, these gods are mostly symbolic. What do we put before God? Who or what do we serve that distracts us from the command to love God and love our neighbour?

Jesus has set the scene that will soon follow: last minute healing with inevitably lead to Jerusalem. There will be a triumphant entry, with joyous crowds that will soon turn. There will be a three-day movement, a movement that will mean death to Jesus and life to us. And resurrection will follow. For now, though, we are still on the margins, on the very edge of something profound, and so we wait.

May God encourage us on our journey, and when we need help, to turn to God alone. Amen.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

First Sunday of Lent

Luke 4
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted[a] by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’[b]”
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’[c]”
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[d]”
12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[e]”
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

If you ever find yourself in the midst of a really bad day, and you begin to wonder how your day could possibly get worse, just remember Kobayashi Maru.

But before I explain Kobayashi Maru (as if it needs explaining) I need to tell you that there is a little known clause in the preacher’s code that if you dedicate any sermon time to either the Star Wars or the Star Trek universe, you must dedicate an equal amount of time to the other. The preacher’s personal feelings on the topic are irrelevant—it’s in the code.

Kobayashi Maru, of course, is the no-win test that every Starfleet cadet must face. It’s also the name of a disabled ship, floating in the Klingon Neutral Zone—and the cadet must decide what to do. Generally these brave cadets attempt a rescue, a handful of Klingon warbirds appear, lots of fictional characters die a horrible hypothetical death, and the test is over.

In the 2009 reboot of the franchise, Spock says "The purpose is to experience fear, fear in the face of certain death, to accept that fear, and maintain control of oneself and one's crew.” And then he adds, “This is the quality expected in every Starfleet captain." Kirk famously cheats the test, arguing that a no-win test is itself a cheat, but that’s an argument best settled over coffee with Team February. Either way, having a bad day? Think Kobayashi Maru.

And it seems to open the question found in Luke 4: was Jesus having a bad day? Tempted in the wilderness for forty days, engaging the ultimate adversary, defeating the adversary with the careful application of scripture—all of these might add up to a series of really bad days.

Evidence to support the bad day theory can be found in Matthew and Mark’s versions of the story—he was having a hard enough time that the angels ministered to him—but somehow Luke omits this detail. It must have been an important aspect of this story though, since Mark compresses the story into a two-verse summary, but still includes the comforting angels.

The other evidence to support the bad day theory is hunger: this was a forty day fast. Most of us end up in a bad day if we miss a meal, but the discipline of fasting (in whatever form it takes) is a difficult trial for those who try. There is an interesting parallel here to the aboriginal vision quest, where fasting in a sacred place is meant to assist the young person learn their purpose in life. Perhaps we could call this Jesus’ vision quest.

However we understand it, Jesus hunger leads to the first test. I’m using test rather than temptation since the Greek word can mean either, and since most of us hear the word temptation and can only think chocolate. Or small electronic devices. Or books, so many books, why does she need so many books?

So the first test is a response to hunger: making bread from stone. And Jesus answers from Deuteronomy 8: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’ The second test is a loyalty test as the devil shows Jesus the kingdoms of this world: all he must do is worship the adversary. This time the quote is from Deuteronomy 6: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve God alone.’”

The final test is the most dramatic, an invitation for Jesus to step off the highest point of the temple and test God’s willingness to save him. Even the devil quotes scripture at this point—Psalm 91—and reminds Jesus that the angels will catch him. The counter-point comes from Deuteronomy once more, as Jesus says ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

If we can go back to Spock for a moment, his summary seems particularly appropriate here: “This is the quality expected in every Starfleet captain." In the scene immediately before testing in the wilderness, Jesus was baptized by John, and a voice from the heavens spoke and was heard to say “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Surely if you are being tested for the role of Son of God, Lord and Saviour, the-way-the-truth-and-the-light, surely you can overcome three tests. And even if they amount to world domination, the ultimate ability to disregard personal safety and the capacity to dematerialize objects at will, Jesus must overcome them before his ministry can proceed. Time and again we will witness Jesus’ unique relationship to the natural world, and this must happen in a way that continues to please God. And Jesus is not alone in this. Scripture is filled with tests and more than a few resemble the no-win test we began with:

The garden was a test, and the outcome was such that all of humanity for all of time can say “Adam, Eve, you had one job.”

Much of Exodus was a test, with rotting manna and golden calfs and endless complaining amounting mostly to failure.

Going to Nineveh was a test, and nothing says failure like ending up in the belly of a whale.

The time after Jesus’ arrest was a test—a three-part test—and Peter failed each part as he denied his friend.

With scripture, so with life. I’m going to very tentatively suggest that we are being tested—that everything is a test—and we rarely do well. I am very reluctant to say that God is testing us, though many in adversity feel that this is true. I will say that having given us reason, and rules, and companions, and the example to Jesus, we are generally being tested against what we know to be good.

Is this a test in the same manner as Adam, Eve, Jonah, Peter and the rest? Not really. The main test we face is measuring ourselves against what we know is right, and deciding what to do when we fail. And while the question of God’s desire to test us remains a topic for theologians and other thinkers, God’s desire to forgive is certain. It is the one theme that Jesus embodies more than any other, the one theme that defined his ministry to us.

If we can go back to Spock for a moment, I want to recall his description of the purpose of the no-win test: "The purpose is to experience fear, fear in the face of certain death, to accept that fear, and maintain control of oneself and one's crew.”

Jesus’ wilderness testing fits this description rather well: experiencing fear, accepting fear, and maintaining self-control. Everything went to plan, except it wasn’t a true no-win situation. Jesus had all the resources he needed to best the devil, and after some tending was ready to begin his ministry. It was a test, to be sure, but it was never a no-win situation.

But listen to the quote again and think of the whole of Jesus’ ministry. Think of the journey up to Jerusalem, and the people who are already pondering his death. Think of the traps that will be set and the betrayal that will follow.

"The purpose is to experience fear, fear in the face of certain death, to accept that fear, and maintain control of oneself and one's crew.”

This is precisely the way Jesus proceeded in the no-win situation called his life on earth. This story ends with fear, certain death and Jesus’ heroic attempts to maintain control of himself and his disciples. Like the Kobayashi Maru, Jesus’ three year walk was always going to end in death and seeming failure, but that was not the test.

The test was what we would do—or rather what will we do—as heirs to the disciples, and members of his crew. Will we match his self-sacrifice? Will we allow the story of his death and resurrection to transform us? Will we enter this final part of his journey and truly reflect on our lives with him? Will we take the test?

We will. And win or lose, we know that God is with us, that Jesus leads us, and the Spirit will tend us. Amen.