This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners (NY) United Methodist Church for the 4th Sunday of Lent, 6 March 2005. The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 16: 1 – 13, Ephesians 5: 8 – 14, and John 9: 1 – 41.
When I first read the Scriptures for today, I tried to think of something witty and funny to use as an opening. But it just didn’t come to me. Something pushed me to read the book "The Four Witnesses" by Robin Griffith-Jones. This is his description of how the four Gospels came into being, describing the nature of the church and the world after Christ’s death.
In this book, he calls the author of the Book of Revelations John the Seer. Now, there are some traditions that say that John the Disciple, considered the author of the Gospel of John, also wrote the Book of Revelations. The only problem with this thought, according to some scholars, is that the time gap between the two books is a bit too big and it would have been highly improbable for the same individual to write both books.
But it is more important that we understand why the Book of Revelations was written, not necessarily who wrote it. John the Seer, as Griffith-Jones calls him, is writing and warning about the dominance of the Roman Empire in the world around him. He sees a government taking on the status of the church, demanding the same degree of attention that individuals give God, and the people willingly allowing this to happen.
I bring this up because many today see the Book of Revelation as a description of the downfall of society. But I see a society where the church is trying to become the government and demanding that society simply follow the line that they, the church leaders dictate, much as the Roman emperors dictated the line that the people of John’s time should follow.
Look around and what do you see? I see a nation that calls itself Christian yet uses war as the answer to violence and terrorism. What are the causes of terrorism and violence in the world today? Can war and more violence end violence? Was not the Gospel message of Christ a message of hope and peace? There are those who say wars are inevitable but is any war justifiable simply in the name of retaliation? How can a war be just if innocent people die?
The causes of injustice and terrorism are found in poverty, homelessness, repression, and prejudice. But both sides do little to eliminate the causes. If my cause requires poverty for justification, then perhaps I need to keep people in poverty. But that was not God’s way (as I interpret the Bible and I could be wrong) and it was not Jesus’ message.
I see a world in which millionaires and multi-millionaires swindle millions and pay little for their crimes. When they do serve a prison sentence, it seems to be a short one and they are free to resume their lives. Yet, when a person learns a trade in prison so that they can be productive when they complete their sentence and have paid their crimes, they are barred from using the trade that they learned because they served time in prison. (The New York Times, Friday March 4, 2005, front page of Section B)
I see political leaders invoking the name of God in every message but then ignoring the poor and homeless. I hear politicians say that we need to involve our faith more and more in dealing with the problems of society; yet, when the time comes to put these words into action, there is very little action to back up the words. The gap between the rich and the poor becomes greater each year but the response of our politicians is take from the poor, leaving them behind, and giving to the rich. Did not Jesus ask us to take care of the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, and the ignored members of society? How can we claim that we are Christian when we do not do those things?
I see church leaders demanding the placement of the Ten Commandments in public places but not as a reminder of how society was developed but rather as icons to be worshipped. I always find it interesting that those individuals who want to keep the stone monuments forget that God, in the Ten Commandments, warned against worshipping other gods or images. Remember that the 2nd Commandment says "You shall have no other gods before me and the 3rd Commandment says "You shall not make for yourself a carved image. Yet, that seems to be what church leaders want today.
I listen to church leaders and other arbitrators of morality complain about the nature of cartoons on television today, claiming that they are advocates of gay lifestyles; yet they say nothing about the garbage that adults watch on television today. It seems that it is perfectly all right to denounce certain shows because "liberal" media produces them but shows produced by "conservative" media are acceptable, even if they are the very epitome of bad taste and questionable morality.
It always amazes me that people speak of these being the end times, the times of Jesus’ Second Coming. Yet, if Jesus were here today, the people today would be like the Pharisees and Sadducees of the New Testament reading, and would call Him a charlatan or a fake. Would we know it was Jesus if we saw Him on the street today?
This was the problem that faced Samuel in the Old Testament reading for today. The people of Israel had literally demanded from God a king. When the nation of Israel was first established, God through the early prophets made it plain to the people that they would not need a king, because they were His subjects. But the other countries around Israel had a king, so the people of Israel demanded a king.
God felt that if He could find someone righteous, then it might be possible for a king to rule. That is why in the earlier chapters of 1 Samuel that Samuel anoints Saul as king of Israel. Saul was God’s chosen representative. But Saul let the power of the office corrupt him and it was necessary for another king to take his place. But who would it be?
The Old Testament reading for today describes God telling Samuel to find Jesse of Bethlehem because one of Jesse’s sons is to be the next king of Israel. But none of the sons that Jesse presents to Samuel is worthy of God’s anointing. Though they may have presented external characteristics that would have been find for an earthly king, they did not have the internal characteristics that are not always obvious to those on earth but are clearly evident to God. It was the youngest of Jesse’s sons, David that God wanted to serve as king.
How often in our own lives are our selections of people and things done on the basis of external values and not what is internal? The blind man at the pool could not see Jesus but he knew that Jesus was the Messiah. The Pharisees and Sadducees could see Jesus but could not tell that He was the Messiah.
We live in a world that is becoming increasingly dark. It is a darkness created in part because others have come to dominate our lives and we have allowed them to do so. It is also a world of darkness because we have not allowed Christ to be the light in our life that He can be.
Samuel was stuck for a while when he went out to find Saul’s replacement, in part because he was stuck in the past. He looked to the old ways for new solutions; this can never work. Rather than living in the past and in the darkness of the past, we should move forward, into the light of the coming kingdom. We should be exposing the darkness, not letting it creep over the land. But we do not.
We should be weeping over the state of world, national and local affairs. But instead, many people have picked up the sword of Constantine, a wicked instrument of triumphalism.
We need what John Howard Yoder calls the "politics of Jesus" and what Stanley Hauerwas calls the "peaceable kingdom." Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says it well: "From now on, all that can be said of God’s action in the past or the present must pass under the judgment of this fact (referring to the cross)." He also says, "God is known in and by the exercise of crucifying compassion; if we are like him that, we know him." These theologians are calling us out of the old era of warfare, the Saul era, and into the Shepherd’s era of justice, peace, and love.
"Justice", a word that is fast losing its robust Christian profile, marks this future kingdom. It has, as Flannery O’Connor said of another word, "a private meaning and a public odor." Some use the term in the sense of "retribution" (bring them to justice), and some in the sense of rectification" (give the victims and the marginalized an equal opportunity). Neither of these ideas is adequately Christian. The Christian concept of "justice" is "what is right before God and others." And, according to Jesus’ own creed, what is "right" is to love God and to love others. (Mark 12: 29 – 31) In the Christian sense, justice means providing our world an opportunity to love God and to love others.
We need to hear the words of the apostle Paul, who said, "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light." We need a renewed commitment to listen to Jesus Christ, to let him be the good shepherd who can dispel the darkness of war and bring in the Shepherd’s era. Peace and justice embrace one another because they will be empowered by love on a day when, to quote Samuel Johnson, "we shall not borrow all our happiness from hope." (Adapted from "Move On" by Scot McKnight in Living the Word, Christian Century, February 22, 2005)
In renewing our commitment to Christ, we change how we see things. Instead of seeing the world, we see the Spirit. Instead of just knowing of God, we allow God to become a part of our lives. Instead of just seeing the life around us, we experience a new life. The Book of Job speaks of this change that we seek. At the end of the book, after Job has experienced a dramatic self-disclosure of God, he exclaims, "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye beholds thee." (Job 42: 5, cited in Meeting Jesus Again by Marcus Borg) That change – from having heard about God with one’s ears to beholding God with one’s eyes – is what Jesus is about.
As you go through the coming days, as the time comes closer to that moment in time that we call Calvary, you are challenged to open your hearts so that you can truly start seeing things, things that will change your life.