Monday, September 8, 2014

BEHOLD YOUR KING. A Homily for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Sunday from John 3:13-17.
 A Homily 
for the Exaltation 
of the Holy Cross Sunday 
from John 3:13-17.

(I am following N.T.Wright's teaching for this homily)

The Lectionary Gospel reading for today brings to our minds the most familiar of scriptures. I have commented elsewhere on parts of this text (go here), and most specifically there I discussed verse seventeen, which still stands as my favorite of scripture texts. 

However, for today's homily I want us to re-focus our attention elsewhere. I want us to meditate upon the meaning of the King on the cross, the King lifted up before us. Specifically, I want us to center our thoughts on what it means for Jesus to be King of the world, and how his Kingship is most powerfully and clearly displayed from the cross.

As many of you know, we have been working through the writings of the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah on Wednesday evenings. Rarely have I been so challenged by a text of scripture. If you have never read Isaiah, or if it has been some time since a sojourn there, I would remind you that, at least for the first thirty-nine chapters, it is all blood and guts, judgement and apocalypse, the end of the nations and eventually the end of the world writ large.

But, woven throughout the pronouncements of judgements, right when you least expect it and just when the hearing of the text gives way to despair, the prophetic utterance allows a hint of hope to glimmer before the ear. Usually this glint is sounded as a reminder of how God remembers his remnant people. 

Clearly, the first hearers under the Poet/Prophet’s preaching needed to be reminded of this truth, that even in the midst of exile, God had not forsaken his people. That is, those Hebrew Prophets of old, the gifted poets who dredged deeply into the reservoir of God's word and who were inspired to envisioned a future that went beyond the hell of exile and the subsistence as the refuse of empire, offered a word toward a future that stood beyond their current reality. 

This may actually be good reminder for us — we who live in this world at war with itself — surrounded as we are by decadence and with that decay inevitably spreading into our own hearts, how we too must re-discover the hopeful, the faithful, and the way of the poverty of heart that leads to charity of life (repentance). 

Perhaps, the rebuke and counsel from the Master for the Laodicean church is pertinent here for us at this point:
15 ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:15-17)

Said differently, to somehow imagine that we, the church, have remained unscathed from a rampant cultural captivity belies a willful acceptance of our deformed discipleship as normal -- calling bad good and good bad.

Or, said still differently, we are on the broad way that leads to destruction. We are part of the problem. We have seen the enemy and he is us! For, as we speak, the body of Christ lies fractured and divided within the social fabric and amid the marketplace of ideas. We still, we somehow refuse to see the calling of Christ to love one another and to love the poor. Being satisfied with our own, personal future, we take our ease saying in our spirits if not with our mouths, who cares about the rest?

Admittedly and happily, there are exceptions, and even though this rant is meant somewhat as hyperbolic speech, it is only somewhat so...

Enter Jesus. 

These last few weeks the Lectionary has been leading us to think-through St. Matthew's understanding of Jesus’ proclamation to the nation and especially those with ears to hear a different understanding of Messiah, predicting his own death and resurrection and challenging those who would follow after him to practice the same way of sacrificial love and reconciling forgiveness.

Here, bringing our Wednesday emphasis from Isaiah and our Lord’s day emphasis on Messiah Jesus, I would assert that Isaiah’s remnant presentation of the Hebrew future, although admittedly meaning something different to the Jews, was understood by Jesus as the promises of God fulfilled within his own person.  That is, Jesus presented himself as the pledged one, the one coming from Almighty God and the one who would actually accomplish God's promises for the Hebrew nation and ultimately for the world.

But, some might question, how would God fulfill the promises made to the Hebrew nation's future hope in Jesus Christ? How would God restore his chosen people? How would God reclaim his world now so mired in sin and marred by evil? How would the garden of paradise flourish again?

Think of God's promise in Christ like this:
  1. Christ fulfills the promise of God to Abraham -- all nations will be blessed through you.
  2. And, Christ’s actions in his ministry, on the cross, in the resurrection and especially through ascension culminate the long, long story of God and his people, as Jesus offers the new-life-and-the-new-way-to-live Kingdom which is present and living only though him.

Therefore, to see Christ on the cross is to see, bodily enacted, the end of Israel’s long exile. Christ on the cross announces through actions that God finally and once and for all responded to the dire calamity of his chosen people — never for a moment forgetting his promises to them. So that what would look to the world as abject defeat — the Hebrew King is dead, was really an outright victory as the servant-King takes on himself the sins of exile — both Israel’s and our own — suffering through them on the tree and in the end coming out on the other side.

All of this, finally, leads to today’s text and this question: What do we see when we see Jesus, the Christ, lifted up on the cross? What does when the text reads:
“…the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (?)
To answer this question we say that Christ on the cross is a living and breathing reality of God’s love through loving action toward his fallen world. Or, to answer this question we could think of the mystery-of faith-formula we express each week -- 
Christ has died, 
Christ has risen, 
Christ will come again. 

This confession portrays to us, through our participation in both the word and the table, that God's response to this shattered world, not only for the Hebrews but for all people, is the death and life of Jesus, who breaks the power of sin and death, who responds to evil by draining it and showing it for what it truly is, and who ultimately establishes a new community of both Jews and gentiles, first in a new cognitive location — a new way to think, and ultimately to a new physical location — God’s reestablished world as paradise being restored — the community of faith.

In short, on the cross we see the King of the world, personifying God’s movement toward the world and not away from it! Far from being repulsed by the depravity found in humanity, the King’s reign occurs within the very heart of that darkness. This means when one thinks about the actions of Messiah-King Jesus — who through the ascension is declared the King of the world — the cross informs us powerfully as to what kind of King and Kingdom Jesus embodies. 

Surely this means that Jesus is not the normal kind of King. Surely we see that this King does not abjectly decree orders to cowering subjects. No. This is a King who, from the cross, takes on the suffering for his people and who willingly opens himself to drink in the woes of a world at war with itself, as in when he says to his most intimate followers: 
“Are you able to drink this cup that I am about to drink?” (Mt.20:22)
Not only this, but the cross shows us a King who personifies the power of what it truly means to be a human being. You see, God’s conception for humans was far different from what our choices have led us to become, and from the cross we see this difference in technicolor.  From the cross we see in this King a response to the selfishness and the violence that displays the ever-present autonomy of the self. From the cross we are exposed to this sacrificial love and this reconciling forgiveness — what we call around here the JesusWay — that opens to us the depth of God’s ultimate design for a true humanness. 

Of course the cross is symbolic, but it must be clearly said that that cross is also much more the symbolic. As someone has said, had you been there on that day, and had you run your hand over the wood of the cross, you would have gotten splinters! 

On the very real cross the very real King reclaims a very lost world. On the cross the very real, live human being, Jesus — who was also more than a human being — takes on the very real systematic power of evil and defeats it. And, finally, on the heavy wood of the cross hung the best that God had to give, and there,  holding nothing back for our redemption, he gave us both the way beyond hate, violence, greed, addictions, autonomy and self-sufficiency, as well as the way of hope and the true way home.

John 3:13-17