Sunday, December 17, 2017

What can we say January 20? 2nd after Epiphany

  If you studied the book of Isaiah in seminary, you learned that Isaiah, the 8th century prophet, was responsible for most of chapters 1-39. Then “deutero-Isaiah,” that eloquent, inspiring prophet of the exile, continuing Isaiah’s tradition, could be heard in chapters 40-55. “Third Isaiah” felt like a weary afterthought, speaking up after the Israelites had returned home.

   But oh my: the passion of these prophetic words in Isaiah 62:1-5! “I will not keep silent!” “Salvation shines like the dawn, like a torch” (and what a vivid image, in the darkness). “Forsaken? Desolate? You will no longer be called these things.” Instead, from now on you’ll be known as “Delight!” or “Married!” The arresting image of the groom rejoicing over his bride: this is how God feels about God’s people, and the joy we might similarly know when God’s light dawns.

   I always wonder about matching the Bible author’s time of day: I will go out early, while it’s still dark, and light a match or a candle, and feel the light while I wait for the dawn. Life with God is like that.

   Who feels forsaken or desolate? In your church? in the community or world? in your home? in your own head? Go there. Name it – or peel back those labels, those defining moods, and replace them with “Delight” and “Married.”  The marriage image is dicey, as it might feel stuck, or a deep wound. But “marriage” is only a disappointing image because we know it should be grand and glorious.”  Think of the greatest wedding you’ve performed – or been in.  The hopes, the giddy laughter, and kinds of tears.  An image of God’s way with us, and our buoyant new hope.

    I might tell about a wedding or two, with some humor (funny things do happen…), and yet with some solid dream of joy. And maybe Lewis Smedes’s lovely thought that when we make and keep promises, we are like God.

    I love the way 1 Corinthians 13 (often read at those weddings) is sandwiched between 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, which speak of the Body of Christ – which really is what that love chapter is about anyhow. Paul speaks of spiritual gifts – and what a not-to-be-missed chance to speak to your church family about God’s gifts to them. We do spiritual gifts inventories and such.  Fine and good! They worry me a little, in that it’s all about me and what I’m good at, and isn’t very attentive to the strange, surprising work God might do in me, and in my church family.  Sometimes the gift is realized only if we get out of our comfort zone and do something hard, something I’m not good at.

    Or more importantly, we discover the Spirit’s place in those places where we have been broken. “The world breaks everyone, and then some become strong in the broken places” (Ernest Hemingway, in Farwell to Arms). If I could sing more off-tune, I might in the pulpit try Leonard Cohen’s “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in” (and really the rest of the song is powerful too).

    The larger point, whether we’re into strengths-finders or brokenness, is that whatever is in us is not for us, for our own personal use, but for God, and for the good of the Body. 
Understanding this changes everything.  This weekend we ponder Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - and how much more interesting is it to see him, not as a great speaker or political visionary, but as one gifted by God's Spirit - and those gifts were given to him not for him but for the building up of the Church and by extension the mission field of the Church, the whole country.

    Finally, John 2. Picking up again on the wedding image of Isaiah 62: Jesus’ first miracle was… at a wedding he attended with his mom.  How lovely.  When I take groups to Israel, we stop off in Cana and offer a service of the renewal of wedding vows. The story, as I preached on it a few years back, is about disappointment. John Cheever, the novelist, suggested that disappointment is the predominant mood of Americans during our era.  Intriguing too, as we have so much. Advertisers and the media feed and grow a sense of disappointment.

    Jesus was there when there was not enough. And he produces wine from mere water. I’ve been given (quite a few times now) a greeting card where a pastor has been pulled over by a policeman, who asks “Have you been drinking?” “Just water, officer” is his reply. The cop asks “Then why do I smell wine?” The pastor: “Good Lord, he’s done it again!”

   Wine has its dangers, as the Bible knows (Proverbs 20:1). And yet God has destined us for joy. Jesus’ miracles declare he’s onto something amazing, that he’s amazing, that he’s the one – but also that he has come for joy. “My Father is glorified when you bear fruit… I have said these things so my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:8, 11).

   And Jesus - to those of us who have so much but are afflicted with a sense of scarcity - is all about abundance. God gives us more than enough of what we need, an overflow of love, purpose, hope, compassion, mercy, wisdom and community. Jesus' new wine, scholars estimate, is 120 gallons.  A LOT of wine, plenty, more than could ever be required. This miracle, after all, did happen "on the third day," a tease, a hint, a foreshadowing of the ultimate gift God will give God's people.
  Hard not to retrace my steps to Frederick Buechner’s thought on what we drink at Communion: After noting how bland grape juice is, he contemplates that “Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one.”

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