For my first post of this new year, I thought that I would share a sermon I gave last night at the ecumenical Adoration service hosted by my church. Christians of every stripe gather on Tuesday nights for a liturgical service centered on Scripture and Table.
Homily for Adoration 1/15/2013
(Texts from USCCB 1/13/2013, Feast of the Baptism of the Lord)
Titus 2:11–14, 3:4–7
Luke 3:15–16, 21–22
In May of 2008, David DeVore Jr., only seven years old, underwent his first surgery. Since his mother could not be present, his father decided to document the experience to share with her later. After an outpatient oral surgery, David’s father buckled him in the backseat and began recording. The resulting video, depicting a seven year old’s reaction to anesthesia, was eventually posted on youtube and went viral, titled, “David After Dentist.” It’s easy to see why it was so popular. The hilarious two-minute video shows David wrestling with the medicine’s effects on his body. He clearly knows something is off, but he just can’t seem to put his finger on it. At one point in the video, he looks at his dad and asks, “Is this real life?” Despite his Dad’s assurances that yes, this is indeed real life, David appears to remain skeptical. This is not real life as he knows it.
Reading our texts for today, I am inclined to ask myself the same question. Isaiah testifies that the servant of the Lord, whom we know to be Jesus, will peaceably establish justice on the earth. But a quick look around, or a scan of recent headlines seems to be pretty convincing counter-evidence to that statement. In a world where children are sold into military and sexual slavery, where the rich are satisfied and the poor are starving, can we really believe that Jesus has already established justice on the earth? Isaiah tells us that the servant of the LORD will bring prisoners out of their confinement and open the eyes of the blind. If Jesus did that, why are there still so many prisoners? Why is there still so much blindness? I read Isaiah’s admittedly beautiful song and I have to ask myself, “Is this real life?”
I tell myself that maybe it is not. Maybe it is just what our life can be, or will be with God’s future action. Maybe because of Jesus, we can hope, with steadfast faith, that this will happen; that justice will be established and prisoners will be set free. Maybe this prophetic text is still anticipatory for God’s creation which wanders in darkness and groans in expectation.
But that move doesn’t do much good. Perhaps Isaiah is yet to be fulfilled, but Titus does not offer us that way out. Paul says in Titus that the grace of God has already appeared, saving all. Saving all? Really? Is this real life? I look at Titus and I think to myself, did the grace of God appear and save the young children in Newtown?
Paul says the the grace of God has appeared and is training us to live temperately, justly and devoutly in this age. But, has it really? Don’t we in the church struggle just as much as those outside to live rightly in this world? Doesn’t sin still get a hold of us and drag us down? Are we sure that the Scriptures are talking about our world and not about some other world, far away from the pain and ambiguity that we all know?
The Scriptures paint a beautiful picture, there is no doubt about that. They quicken our imagination and spark our curiosity. But the question is not whether they are nice to think about, or whether give us a good feeling, the question is whether they are true. In light of what I see in the world, it is hard to say that they are. Maybe, you’re different than me. Maybe you don’t feel in your bones the loneliness, the suffering, and the pain of the world. But I do, and I have to ask myself if Marx was right. Is all that is in these Scriptures opium for the masses?
Then I think about the scene from our gospel. It must have been a fantastic sight to behold. The sky opens up, revealing the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and the very voice of God announcing the Jesus is his beloved Son. In the midst of the wilderness in an oppressed country, God breaks through and announces that he is changing real life. Something new is happening. That is our hope, right? That the world as we know it is transformed into the beautiful life promised by the scriptures, that as John the Revelator says, the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.
At Jesus’ baptism, all can see this uniting of heaven and earth—this transformation of earth by heaven. No one who saw this awesome scene could possibly deny that this was indeed the real world that they knew.
And yet, we read later in Luke’s gospel that some who were present at this scene doubted the Jesus was indeed the Messiah. And these doubters weren’t just the people on the outskirts, the people who might have been to far away to have seen clearly the dove-like figure or made out what the thundering voice was saying. No, the doubter that we know of is John himself, the very one baptizing Jesus. The one with the front-row seat to this sight. After enough time had passed and Jesus had lost a little of the novelty of a prophet by teaching in parables and surrounding himself with a ragtag group of peasants, John sends two of his disciples to Jesus. Are you sure that you’re the one, or are we supposed to wait for another?
The gospel message is not that because Jesus came, lived, died and was resurrected, that we now have the promise of a future negation of all of the pain and misery in the world. The gospel is not that Jesus came and therefore we can be assured that we can go to heaven when we die. No, the the gospel message is that in Christ God has already destroyed the wall of hostility, in Christ, God has already defeated death, in Christ, God has already brought about a new age.
The world full of suffering and death, of heartsickness and addiction that we all know and experience, that is not the real world. The real world is the world we read about in these Scriptures, that we celebrate at this table.
That is why we come together to worship. To divest ourselves of our worlds and histories and see again the glory of God’s real world. This is a cause of rejoicing, as theologian David Bentley Hart says. “We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”
And this is not only some future reality that we hope for, but the world as it already really is, ruled presently by the lamb who was slain. We come here to train our eyes, to cultivate our alternative consciousness to maintain a sense of the reality that runs against the stream of the unquestionably accepted commonplaces of the age. We come hear to learn, as John Howard Yoder said, “to see history doxologically.” To open our eyes and see the whole cosmos as a theater of God’s action, and all sin, all death, as nothing.
Rowan Williams tells a story about nuns who made the decision to put up a sign that reads “private” on the front door of the convent. Itself, not that noteworthy of an action, until, that is, we learn of the direction of the sign. It was placed on the inside of the front door. It points to the fact that the outside world is a world full of sin and isolation (Adam, Where are you?), while inside the convent, through prayer and self-critical contemplation, a truly public life is being lived before God and one another. That is the real world. Everything outside and opposed to the grace, love, and justice of Jesus is non-being is unreality. So, we gather in worship to hear again the gospel, the Yes of God to his creation. As we approach this table, we are like Peter walking on the sea. We behold Jesus here and we confess, “Lord, we believe.” Then we turn to the world beyond these doors, the false world of sin and loneliness, like the waves threatening to overtake Peter, and pray, “help our unbelief.”