Sunday, January 25, 2009

Third Sunday After Epiphany Year B 2009

03 Epiphany B 09

January 25, 2009

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Psalm 62:5-12
5 For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
6 He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
7 On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
8 Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.
9 Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
10 Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
11 Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
12 and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all
according to their work.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Mark 1:14-20
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea--for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Listen to these words: “Greetings from the President of the United States: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Army of the United States and to report to Assembly Room, 17th Floor, Federal Building, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”

A letter with these words or words like it was delivered to my grandfather on the day before his 34th birthday, the birthday that would have exempted him from the draft. It required him to leave his wife and my mother, then his ten-year-old daughter, and to go to war. It sent him in the Army Engineers and he served in the European theater of World War II. He got the letter, and however he may have felt about it, he just dropped everything and went.

We wonder at the immediacy with which the characters of the bible make their decisions.

God said to Abraham, “Get up and go.” And Abraham got up and went.

Jonah said to Nineveh “Repent.” And Nineveh repented.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.” And the fishermen did.

In the book of Acts, we read about the radical way that Christians lived in the immediate aftermath of Pentecost. They shared all things in common, they adopted all the poor people, they ran off in droves on missionary journeys. They frequently got in trouble with the authorities. In the words of one observer, “they were turning the world upside down.”

All of this they did, as they themselves frequently said, because they believed that at any moment Jesus would return. They really did. Working at jobs, running businesses, attending to family matters, all those things that were the ordinary stuff of life, just as they are the ordinary stuff of life for most people for most of human history, well, they just weren’t important anymore.

And these weren’t survivalists expecting a war who run off into the wilderness and set up fortresses. They didn’t run off and hide. No, they came together in community, it says in the scripture” every day,” to pray and break bread. They shared everything they had, they fed the poor, the visited prisoners, they clothed the naked, they forgave sinners and outcasts and welcomed them. They even began to find that people who weren’t Jews were attracted to them and they had a little problem with that to begin with, but then they said, “well, everything’s changing, isn’t it? Come on in!”

People who would ordinarily have gotten married and started families said, “Well, there’s no point in doing that.” People who would ordinarily borrowed money and started businesses said, “No sense in starting anything now.” They weren’t fatalists. They weren’t planning on a holocaust. They were planning on a different kind of world, a world in which heaven would be at home. In such a world, everyone would love everyone else as themselves. Laws and rules and institutions, like marriage, trade, politics and war, all those things that used to keep order in the world, wouldn’t be necessary anymore.

Violence or the threat of violence would have no place in such a world. Soldiers gave up soldiering. Jailers gave up their jails. Cops gave up their nightsticks. Slave-owners freed their slaves, then made them pastors. Women who had been chattel were put in charge. Former prostitutes became church leaders. Old women had visions, young men had dreams.

The world they lived in was a terrible mess, a violent world in which life for most people was brutal, hard and short. But they had heard the promise, had seen the risen Lord, had heard the kingdom was at hand, and so they lived in the midst of all the mess as a sign of a better world that was coming.

Time passed.

Somebody said, “Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom, but it was the church that came.” I remember when I first heard that, I thought, “they made a mistake.” But I don’t think that anymore. It is true however that as the years went by and those first radical Christians grew old and the apostles were martyred one after another and the day-to-day nuisance of running a subversive sub-culture that had no apparent rules became increasingly difficult, the leaders of the church began to recognize that everyone couldn’t just drop everything and leave the world. Some would be married, some would have families, some would start businesses and run them, some might even continue serving in the military. Sadly, the church began to cave into pressures about social institutions like only having men in charge.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrestles with the problem by encouraging people to avoid getting married, unless they are inflamed with passion and would act up without it. He tells slaves not to expect to be liberated and slave owners that if they have to have slaves to remember they themselves are slaves to Christ. You can almost hear him sighing, frustrated with all the compromising. But at the end of it all, he says, “Look, just remember, whatever you do, that the kingdom of God is near. Keep that focus!”

Jesus comes to all of us, reminding us again and again that the kingdom of God is very near to us, and that we should change our focus, aim at this different target, shoot for this different goal. Where he finds us and what we’re doing at the time has a lot to do with what we actually do or don’t do. But what action we take is less important than what we believe in, what our lives are aimed at.

The scripture tells us stories of others Jesus called who refused his call. We hear many stories of opponents and detractors among people of faith. We hear countless stories of those he healed who went on their way rejoicing and never even thanked him. And even those who walked away from their nets walked away from Jesus in his own hour of greatest need.

It’s obvious to me now that as we all go through our lives, the call comes to us and we hear it or don’t, accept it or don’t, but the call keeps coming. As young people, many of us have a season of passion for the Lord and we imagine running off to some foreign land to spread the word about Christ, only to discover the opposite sex and a different, less holy passion. Yet some do answer that call.

And some of us go into business and raise families and send them off to college, and hear the call when we are retired, and find, “wow, I can answer it now.”

Even within our congregation, we all know the old saying that twenty percent of the members do eighty percent of the work. Everything that is done is a response to the call of the kingdom of God: taking care of the building, dealing with the money and paying the bills, planning the worship services, gathering food for the hungry, doing the blanket drive, serving the food for our fellowship gatherings, teaching the classes. But that eighty percent who show up on some Sundays and sleeps in on others are still answering the call as best as they know how.

And I think we need to remember that Philippi Christian Church is not the whole church on earth. There are still people who joyfully leave everything and give themselves to a simple life of poverty and service. There are still people who leave the world of business and power to preach and teach as pastors of the church. There are still people who leave home and country to serve the poor and carry their witness to the ends of the earth. Most may stay a little off to the side, cheering them on, but it’s still one body, still one Lord, still one kingdom that is coming.

I think the question is when. When in your life do you hear this call? When in your life do you heed it? Can you heed it while you are still concerned about spouses and family, your town and your earthly nation? In some ways the path of staying in the world, but not of the world, seems to me the harder path, because always you are there being tempted and cajoled and persuaded that the ways of the world are where you should put your trust. I guess that’s why I’m here, why I left the world, to remind you each week where you hope really lies.

The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe this good news.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

First Sunday After Epiphany Year B 2009

January 11, 2009

01 Epiphany B 09
Baptism of Our Lord

Genesis 1:1-5
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Psalm 29
1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name;
worship the LORD in holy splendor.
3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD, over mighty waters.
4 The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, "Glory!"
10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the LORD give strength to his people!
May the LORD bless his people with peace!

Acts 19:1-7
1 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2 He said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" They replied, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." 3 Then he said, "Into what then were you baptized?" They answered, "Into John's baptism." 4 Paul said, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus." 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied-- 7 altogether there were about twelve of them.

Mark 1:4-11
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Extreme Make-Over: Whole Person Edition

When I first moved to New York in 1982, I rented a railroad flat that didn’t have a shower, just a big, deep clawfoot bathtub in the kitchen. It took a lot longer than showering. You had to spend time waiting for the hot water to fill the tub. To have to get up a little bit earlier in order to get the tub filled and to get my bath was kind of inconvenient. And, once in the water, I had this worry that I wasn’t really getting clean, because, after all, everything I washed off stayed in the water with me.

But I really got to like it. It was a wonderful way to start the day, floating nearly weightless in that hot soothing water, a cup of coffee on the stand nearby. And strangely enough, I always felt squeaky clean afterward; even cleaner than I had felt showering.

Ritual bathing was a basic facet of Jewish practice long before John the Baptist came along. They called it mikvat, and it is still the means by which Gentile people become Jewish. But it was also used by Jewish brides prior to being married and, in the days of the temple, to prepare to go into the temple for worship.

Bathing is an earthy act. We get naked to bathe. There are no rich people or poor people or smart people or stupid people in bathtubs. Everyone is reduced to the basic human creature. You can’t wear those slimming clothes, you can’t hide the imperfections.

In the ancient church, people were always baptized naked. You removed your clothes before you went in. Presumably you stood there naked when you were asked those last important questions. Do you believe in Christ? Do you reject Satan? Can you imagine?
Bathing is an earthy act. Once in the bathtub it’s all about directly confronting the nasty. Scraping and scrubbing the dead skin and the dirt and all the rest, inspecting yourself, turning this way and that. We all learn how to twist ourselves in pretzels to reach the parts we need to reach.

But when you come out, don’t you feel good? New and fresh.

William Willimon once said, “When one joins the Rotary, or the League of Women Voters, they give you a membership card and lapel pin. When one joins the Body of Christ, we throw you under, half drown you, strip you naked and wash you all over, pull you forth sticky and fresh like a newborn…”

After baptism in the ancient church you were dressed in a flowing, pristine white robe, much like the one I wear in traditional worship. That’s why some preachers like me wear these white robes, and why St. John describes the heavenly host in the Book of Revelation as “robed in white.”

I found a great sermon to steal on the internet by a Pastor Roop of a strange church in Tennessee that calls itself the Knoxville Ecumenical Orthodox Church, whose mission statement sounds a lot like the Disciples, though perhaps a little more open to the ancient orthodox tradition.

Roop brings up another aspect of baptism, and this is probably closer to what John the Baptist meant by it. God judged the world by drowning it, and when one is baptized, the old dying sinner is given his just desserts.

Here’s how Pastor Roop describes baptism:

"When you finally stand before the church and fess up to the fact that you are a whitewashed tomb filled with all manner of rottenness and dead men’s bones, don’t expect to hear, 'Oh, no. You’re OK. You’re not really that bad.' No, the church is likely to say, 'Yep, you’re a hopeless mess alright, so hopeless that we’re going to have to put you out of your misery. Yep, we’re going to have to kill you. Our preferred method is drowning.'”

There are pictures of last year’s baptisms out there in the fellowship hall in an album that Don Leyden put together. It was a little embarrassing to find out that I’d been confirmed and ordained a pastor in the church but had never been baptized, not even sprinkled. An oversight of my parents, it appears.

If you go out there and look at the pictures of this summer’s baptismal candidates, I have to say they look very much like people on their way to being executed. I didn’t realize then that this was probably appropriate.

Not many of us have had the personal experience of dying. It’s one of those one-time things, I guess. But a lot of us have been around people as they were dying. I was with Frank Cooke and his wife Kristin yesterday, and Kristin, who is probably about 23, a child to most of us, cares for her husband as he is very, very sick with cancer. We all pray that Frank gets well, but he is truly very sick, and death is close by.

Death’s closeness to Kristin has awakened her to a vision of the world that is entirely new. She had once seen the world as a rather cold place in which people basically struggled with each other. But as death has come closer, she has begun to experience the presence of God, as he comes to her in the people who care. This is what John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance is all about. You can’t really know what God is doing until you really confront the nasty. You can’t really see what God is doing unless you die.

So baptism is a bath, and it is also an execution. But the executed person rises again. Baptism is also about resurrection. A new baby is born, a baby Christian, not of the flesh, as St. John said in last week’s lesson, but of the Holy Spirit of God. It might take years and years for that baby to grow up into everything he or she is meant to become, but when she comes out of the water, the sinner has become a new person, a new kind of person. The old dying sinner was scraped and scrubbed away and washed out to sea, leaving a baby Christian.

How many of you have seen the show “Extreme Makeover”? It’s that show where taste-challenged people are taught how to dress and put on make-up. And then there’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” where deserving families have miserable homes torn down and built new. Well, I want to announce a new show called: Extreme Makeover: Whole Person Edition. It happens every time we take a new believer to the water, and Jesus Christ is the host.

Jesus was the first of this new creation. This is why he is so central to our way of life. This is why it’s important to know a lot more about Jesus than that he was born in Bethlehem or that he died for our sins or that he rose from the dead. This year, I have a pressure within me to preach about Jesus, to really get into who he was and what he meant by what he said and did, and who is continues to be today.

God began creating a new world when Jesus assented to letting his old self die through the baptism of John. The heavens, the separation between our world and God, were torn apart and the Word of God came down and made Jesus a new creation, a child of God, beloved, and well-pleasing to God. Brand new, fresh, and squeaky clean. And that same promise is extended to all who follow Jesus into the water.

Michelangelo said his sculptures were already there; he just removed the stone. His creative act was more like revelation of something that was hidden than making something out of nothing. The Greek word for revelation is apocalypse. An apocalypse is not complete destruction; it is the removal of the stone to reveal the beautiful sculpture underneath. The creation story we heard this morning is not so much about making something new as it’s about revealing something that has been hidden. That’s what baptism is. The dirt and the dead skin are being scraped and scrubbed away, to reveal the beautiful new thing hidden under it. And that is our mission as a newly made-over community of the washed: to work with God to reveal the beautiful world hidden under the mess.

It may be hard to believe, but the creating power of God is given to God’s children, everyone who is baptized, and perhaps even to many who haven’t. This is what the baptism of Jesus means for you and me. Just as the believers Paul baptized were given power, so each one of us is given the same power, the power to see with new eyes, speak with new voices, the power to push back what is hiding God’s beautiful creation.

Listen to these words: “You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Do you hear them from a pastor named Mike, or do you hear them from the torn-apart heavens? Are they only human words, or are they God’s word addressing you? If they are just human words, well, they may not mean anything. But if they are God’s word, you have some work to do, some things to learn, to skills to hone. You have a world to remake.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Second Sunday After Christmas Year B 2009

02 Christmas B 09

January 4, 1009

Jer 31:7-14 (NRSV)
7 For thus says the LORD:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
"Save, O LORD, your people,
the remnant of Israel."
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock."
11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD.

Psalms 147:1-20 (NRSV)
1 Praise the LORD!
How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
2 The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
3 He heals the brokenhearted,
and binds up their wounds.
4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.
5 Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.
6 The LORD lifts up the downtrodden;
he casts the wicked to the ground.
7 Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.
8 He covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
9 He gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry.
10 His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
11 but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.
12 Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem!
Praise your God, O Zion!
13 For he strengthens the bars of your gates;
he blesses your children within you.
14 He grants peace within your borders;
he fills you with the finest of wheat.
15 He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.
16 He gives snow like wool;
he scatters frost like ashes.
17 He hurls down hail like crumbs--
who can stand before his cold?
18 He sends out his word, and melts them;
he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.
19 He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and ordinances to Israel.
20 He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
they do not know his ordinances.
Praise the LORD!

Eph 1:3-14 (NRSV)
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

John 1:1-18 (NRSV)
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

God’s Image Problem

God has an image problem. Have you heard about this?

On Good Morning America this week, there was a public relations guy on who has written a book about self-promotion. He started by saying, “We all know that in our time, what we think is more important than what is true.” I’ll let you think about that for a minute.

People think a lot of things about God, and I guess they aren’t shy about proclaiming what they think. Pastor Lew has taught a very popular class about all the different religions of the world. Some have images of God, some don’t really feature any idea of God at all.

What’s your image of God? Think about it for a minute. I’ve heard people in our congregation saying that God is unknowable. I can relate to that. So many conflicting ideas. It seems unfriendly to say anyone is wrong about God. It seems more polite to suggest that no one can know him, so it’s best not to argue about it, just let everyone think what they want.

I’ve heard others among us assert with great conviction that there is such a thing as truth, that faith is all about assenting to the right doctrines. I can relate to that too. There’s something satisfying about Judge Judy. People come in the courtroom trying to justify their shenanigans and she lays them out, tells them what is obvious to most of us. Certain things are right and certain things are wrong, period.

A study was done last year, we were talking about it the other night, trying to get a sense of what people thought about God. They identified two continuums that seemed to be in everyone’s mind when they imagined God. One had to do with nearness or distance, the other with approval or anger. This meant there were four possible extremes: God is close by and happy; God is far away and happy; God is close by and angry; God is far away and angry. Of course there were more moderate views. What the test didn’t measure was context over time. I would say the bible portrays God in all four categories, though perhaps the far-away-and-happy model rarely shows up. In the bible, strangely, God seems to take different attitudes and positions depending on what is happening.

I rather like the bible because the bible chooses mostly to tell stories, and what doctrine it lays out is largely commentary on the stories. I think most interpretation goes wrong when people read the doctrine but not the stories or read the stories but not the doctrine.

But one thing the bible makes very clear is that God has an image problem. And today’s lessons tell us, his people, what we are to do about it. He tells us to praise him.

God even tells us what to praise him for. We are to praise him, in the case of Jeremiah, for what he hasn’t done yet. We are to praise him for his intentions to rescue a rather small percentage of his people spread out over the world and bless them in some way that surprises the rest of the world. That seems a little odd.

The psalm seems to make a little more sense. We are to praise God for creating the universe and everything in it, and we are to praise him at the same time for particular attention for us, his people, attention he does not lavish on everyone. Are we to celebrate that we’re in and everyone else is out? Is this really worthy of praise?

Paul carries this idea forward and says that yes, we bless God because we were chosen before we were even born (meaning we, God’s people), chosen for adoption as children of God.

And John seems to be making the same claim, that we praise God because he who created the world has come among us so that some of us, apparently rather few of the world’s inhabitants, might receive him and thereby be reborn, taken from the world of people born in the ordinary way because a couple of parents want to have some children, into the kingdom of heaven where we are born anew as God’s sons and daughters.

Does God have a self-esteem problem? It seems unlikely. But God does have an image problem. The world he made, John’s gospel says, apparently doesn’t know him, and doesn’t want to. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who takes the biblical witness seriously. The book of Genesis, which the Gospel calls to mind with its opening words, makes clear that humankind from the very beginning rejected God. God’s strategy in dealing with this problem was first to destroy the world, or most of it, a strategy he decided never to repeat. He decided instead to work with what he had.

This he chose to do through creating a people for himself, a nation of priests called Israel. He did this over the course of many generations, treating his people as a parent treats an unruly child. Remember, the world, the whole world, had already rejected God, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the people God chose would have a hard time adjusting. He therefore gave them a law, a fairly strict law. He hadn’t read Dr. Spock, so he used punishment as liberally as he used rewards, he spanked them and sent them to their room without their suppers and took away their privileges and even kicked them out of the house for a while. But like most parents, he also never really abandoned them, and he always relented and forgave them. They eventually became somewhat obedient, albeit resentful, adults, a people who strived to please a God they were actually pretty scared of. At the same time they were a pretty entitled lot, always saying, “Look at all we’re doing for you; you better reward us like you promised!”

The problem was that this didn’t work for God’s image problem. The world, for the most part, did not look at Israel and say, “Wow, those people have an awesome God! Look how happy they are, look how wonderful their culture is! Maybe we could learn from them!”

There’s a tradition in the twelve-step fellowships that reads, “Our public relations policy is one of attraction and not promotion.” God’s strategy is one of attraction and not promotion. His goal was to create a nation rich in justice and peace and life and wholeness, a nation that rejoiced to be his, that wouldn’t dream of living any other kind of life, of having any other king but God.

The amazing thing that all these scriptures are saying to us is that all of the work God had done with Israel was simply a prologue to his real plan. What no one knew was that Israel was a staging ground for the real strategy, one that began with the birth of a new kind of person, a new kind of king, one born of God’s own Holy Spirit, but made out of the same old materials, human flesh and blood. God’s image problem was solved by Jesus. Christ is God’s perfect image, because Christ is God.

It’s hard to say even now why some people open themselves up to Jesus Christ and some people don’t. The scriptures we heard this morning suggest that it is somehow part of God’s hidden plan, and this has led some Christians to believe in predestination. I can’t say that such a doctrine, whether it is true or not, is ultimately very helpful, particularly if we adopt the view that people who are not predestined for heaven are therefore predestined for hell. I don’t hear Paul or John suggesting this and thinking too much about it has never seemed to help anyone. It certainly doesn’t do much for God’s image problem.

I think Jeremiah might help us here by describing the experience of exile as a kind of prerequisite for becoming open to God’s call in Jesus Christ. Most people I have known who have been drawn to the new birth in the Holy Spirit are people who in one way or another find themselves outside the gates of this or that human community, who somehow just don’t fit in the usual social groups. Jeremiah speaks of the blind and the lame, the ones who somehow feel incomplete and separate from the world.

However we get here, it seems we are drawn to the peculiar community of praise and joy, of equality and love, of forgiveness and generosity that is God’s church. Jesus, by opening the way for God to pour his Holy Spirit among us, has perfected Israel, so that we can be that nation the world looks at and says, “Wow, they worship an awesome God! Look how happy they are! Look how they love one another! Look at the justice and peace and love that fills their community! Maybe there is something we could learn from their God!”

The whole church on earth, with its many denominations, is the largest single religious movement in the world. Still as a percentage of the world’s population, it is relatively small. We also know that it is terribly imperfect, and that God’s intention, that the world might join us in praise of its creator, is far from realized.

But we, surprisingly, wonderfully, have been chosen to deal with God’s image problem. We are being equipped with the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, so that we ourselves might manifest God’s presence in the world. We can’t do it without his Spirit and the things we do here as the people of God is all about opening ourselves and asking for that Spirit, so that we can love God from the bottom of our hearts the way humankind was made to do, so that we can praise him, and mean it, so that a world that doesn’t know him might just join in.